Atrial Fibrillation is a condition whereby the electrical system of the heart malfunctions, causing it to beat irregularly and inefficiently pump blood through the body. Heart palpitations, fatigue and even stroke can result. While Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is not considered a life threatening-condition in and of itself, it is definitely a medical emergency that should never be ignored. If left untreated, AF may lead to more serious consequences that can be potentially disabling or even fatal. Whenever the body is not receiving an ample supply of oxygen enriched blood, debilitating conditions and disease of all types are more likely to occur. The bright side of this whole affair is that in the majority of cases, AF can be prevented through practicing a lifestyle of healthy habits.
What Are the Causes of Atrial Fibrillation?
The heart, like all muscles in the body, is controlled by electrical impulses that cause it to contact and relax. But the heart is no ordinary muscle. In order for it to efficiently pump blood, the heart’s 4 chambers – 2 upper called the atria and 2 lower called the ventricles – must be coordinated to beat in a very precise manner. A small group of cells located in the right atrium called the sinus node is responsible for producing the correct electrical signals to begin each and every heartbeat. Some have nicknamed it the “heart’s natural pacemaker.” A healthy sinus node sends out an electrical impulse before every heart beat that sets this coordinated process in motion. Normally, the heart muscle then pumps blood from the atria, into the ventricles, and out into the body.
When a person has atrial fibrillation, the signal in the atria (where it all begins) is irregular, producing too many impulses. This part of the heart then begins to quiver or “fibrillate.” These electrical signals are not all able to reach the ventricles, their next normal stop, so they back up in the heart, much like cars in a traffic jam. This results in the ventricles beating chaotically as well, and the outcome is an irregular heart beat or heart palpitations, as they are also called.
The normal human heart beat is about 60-100 beats per minute, but people with AF may experience fast, irregular heart beat of 100-175 beats per minute. Not only can this cause the heart to fail or stop beating, but the blood that is circulated is oxygen poor and of lower quality than needed.
Possible causes for atrial fibrillation typically involve some damage to the heart muscle or structure, either as a birth defect or brought on later in life. Some of the most common potential causes of atrial fibrillation include:
- Heart defects (such as abnormal valves or congenital problems)
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Heart attacks
- Damaged or improperly functioning sinus node
- Surgical stress (heart surgery and to other parts of the body)
- High blood pressure
- Side effects of certain medications
- Abuse of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and other stimulants
- Emphysema and other respiratory conditions
- Sleep apnea
- Viral infections (in the heart and elsewhere throughout the body)
- Other electrical disorders of the heart
What are the Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?
When oxygen-enriched blood is not able to circulate effectively throughout the body, many problems can potentially occur. The most common symptom of atrial Fibrillation is heart palpitations, that uneasy feeling of your heart “skipping a beat,” racing, or “flip-flopping” in your chest. Other common symptoms include:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Mental confusion
- Abnormally low blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Most of these symptoms are a result of poor circulation and low blood pressure. An otherwise healthy person will be uncomfortable, but not likely to be in danger from atrial fibrillation alone. However, certain factors can increase a person’s risk for atrial fibrillation or related complications. These include:
- Previous or current heart disease
- High blood pressure, especially if it is ongoing and not dealt with
- Consuming alcohol, particularly binge drinking (a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time). This can disrupt the normal heart beat and trigger atrial fibrillation
- Age: the older we get, the greater the risk for atrial fibrillation
- Hyperthyroidism: An overactive thyroid is also a major contributing factor for atrial fibrillation in many people with the condition
- Atrial fibrillation can also run in families, and a family history of the condition may increase your own risk
What Complications are Associated with Atrial Fibrillation
- Stroke: When blood begins to pool in the atria, blood clots can potentially form. If any of these travel to the brain, a stroke may occur. Blood clots are one of the major concerns of atrial fibrillation, especially if atrial fibrillation is chronic.
- Heart Failure: This is the other major complication possible with atrial fibrillation. Heart failure is a condition that renders the heart muscle unable to circulate enough oxygen enriched blood throughout the body.
How is Atrial Fibrillation Treated?
Other than prevention, which we will discuss below, there are quite a few ways that treatment for atrial fibrillation can be handled. The 2 biggest concerns when choosing treatment options for atrial fibrillation are returning heart beat to normal and preventing blood clots.
As far as re-establishing a normal heart beat and rhythm goes, there are 2 main ways this can be done: With drugs, and manually.
- Cardioversion with Drugs: Medications are given to the patient initially, in most cases, during a hospital stay. Once regularity has been restored, the patient is usually discharged and given ongoing meds to take for maintenance.
- Electrical Cardioversion: This is a procedure, perfomed under anesthesia, that administers an electrical shock in order to stop the heart from beating momentarily. The goal is to have the heart restart on its own and hopefully revert back to normal heart beat and rate.
Preventing clots is typically handled through the use of medication. Anticoagulants such as Warfarin and Coumadin are often prescribed.
In addition, there are several other invasive surgical procedures that may be recommended. Keep in mind that using medications, electrical cardioversion, or any other interventions has its risks. Be sure to discuss your options carefully with your healthcare provider and educate yourself regarding the risks of any medical procedure. It is in your best interest to know and understand all of your options so that you and your healthcare provider can make educated choices that are the most appropriate and effective for your situation.
How Is Atrial Fibrillation Prevented?
The best way to keep atrial fibrillation from occurring is to take good care of your heart. The two most important ways of doing this are healthy diet and exercise.
Try to remove animal fat from your diet and eat mainly organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and vegetable sources of protein. Add healthy essential fatty acids and healthy fats to your diet. Non-toxic fish oil and eating cold-water fish will help with atrial fibrillation. Also, do not overeat, as being overweight or obese is one of the heart’s (and the entire body’s) worst enemies.
Exercise regularly. Your heart is a muscle, and it needs to be worked out in order for it to stay healthy and strong. Cardiovascular activity should be a key part of your exercise routine. Getting your heart pumping fast strengthens it and boosts your immune system to boot, which helps to naturally prevent various viral infections that can potentially cause atrial fibrillation.
Investigate herbal remedies to improve circulation. Black cohosh is an excellent example. It contains substances that your heart and circulatory system will love including: phosphorous, potassium, iron, and vitamins A and B5. According to some European studies, Hawthorn berry increases blood flow to the heart and brain, protects the heart from irregular beats, enhances the strength of the heart’s contractions, and mildly lowers blood pressure. Magnesium deficiency (stress depletes magnesium) can cause atrial fibrillation. Try taking a magnesium supplement such as Magnesium Orotate.
Be aware that certain herbs can actually stimulate cardiac rhythm especially if taken in very high doses. These include ephedra, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, guarana, horny goat weed, rhodiola herb, yohimbe, and other tonic herbs.
Take good care of your thyroid. Avoid substances that can damage the thyroid such as caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, etc.), alcohol, fluoride, and other toxic chemicals. An overactive thyroid is a concern for the entire body, and is certainly one of leading causes of atrial fibrillation. You should be aware that many medications (both prescribed and OTC) contain stimulants such as pseudoephedrine, for example, that can trigger atrial fibrillation, especially in those with a prior history of atrial fibrillation. Read all labels carefully.
Monitor your blood pressure. Healthy diet and exercise are key here as well. Be especially careful to avoid excessive amounts of sodium (table salt), keep your weight down, and eat a clean, organic diet. One of the many rewards of regular exercise is the avoidance of high blood pressure.
Never smoke, and if you do, quit now. The damage to your heart muscle is immense, but the body begins to heal even the first day you quit, so don’t give up!
Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH is a Naturopathic Physician, Clinical Nutritionist, Holistic Health Practitioner and Clinical Herbalist in Houston, TX and Founder / CEO of Oasis Advanced Wellness. Under her leadership, Oasis Advanced Wellness is known and respected as one of the leading companies in providing safe, non-toxic, hi-tech natural health and wellness solutions along with cutting-edge health programs. Dr. Lanphier is the author of five health and wellness e-books including Optimum Health Strategies…Doing What Works. Lanphier is Editor and contributor to the worldwide Free E-newsletterAdvanced Health & Wellness We invite you to visit us at Oasis Advanced Wellness, the PMS-Progesterone-Menopause Resource Center, the Acne Resource Center, the Skin Care Resource Center, the Glyconutrient Resource Center, the Allergy-Asthma-Sinus Relief Resource Center andwww.oasisserene.com