Foods to Avoid with Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a condition affecting over 2.3 million Americans. AFib occurs when the normal rhythmic pumping of the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) breaks down. Instead of a normal heartbeat, the atria pulse or “fibrillate” at a very fast or irregular rate. This can lead to increased stroke risk and heart failure.
Lifestyle changes are important in managing AFib. Managing stress, getting enough exercise, and avoiding certain foods can reduce your risk of an AFib episode. Medication and surgical procedures can control more advanced AFib.
Foods That Make You Skip a Beat
If you have paroxysmal AFib—occasional AFib that can still return to a normal heartbeat—it’s important to avoid triggers. Stress, illness, and certain medications can trigger AFib, and some foods and drinks can as well.
Studies have shown that alcohol can trigger an AFib episode in people who have previously had a paroxysmal AFib attack. Binge drinking is especially risky. However, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), even moderate drinking—between 1 to 21 drinks a week for a man—can lead to AFib episodes in people with heart disease or diabetes.
But How Will I Live Without Coffee?
For years, it was a standard recommendation that people diagnosed with AFib should avoid caffeine in coffee, tea, guarana, soda, and other sources.
However, clinical studies have failed to show a link between caffeine intake and AFib episodes. A large Scandinavian study showed no association with coffee intake and AFib. Another study in dogs showed that the risk of triggering an AFib episode was actually reduced in the animals given caffeine.
You might want to limit your intake of high-caffeine energy drinks, but a cup of coffee is probably just fine.
Health Wise Is Heart Wise
Eating right for AFib means eating right for your whole body. Obesity and high blood pressure can increase the risk of AFib. One way to combat excess weight, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure is to follow a low-fat diet. Cardiologists recommend that patients with AFib reduce fat intake. Unhealthy fats include:
- saturated fat (found in butter, cheese and other solid fats)
- trans fats (found in margarine)
- cholesterol (found in fatty meats and dairy)
Low Salt Sanity
Salt intake is a big culprit in making hypertension or high blood pressure worse, one of the risk factors for atrial fibrillation. Cardiologists recommend reducing sodium in your diet to maintain heart health and reduce AFib risk.
Many processed and frozen foods contain high salt content, so be sure to read labels and try to stick with fresh foods. Salt substitutes and fresh herbs and spices can keep food flavorful without all the added sodium.
On the flip side of excess sodium is the risk of low potassium. Potassium is an important nutrient for cardiac health. It allows muscles to work efficiently. Many people may have low potassium levels due to poor diet or taking certain medications like diuretics. Low potassium levels may increase the risks of arrhythmia. You should ask your doctor if you are on any medications before trying to add more potassium to your diet.
Good food sources of potassium include:
- fruits like bananas, apricots, and oranges
- root vegetables like sweet potatoes and beets
Popeye Isn’t Always Right About Spinach
If you’re on medications to treat AFib, you have to think about how taking other medications might interact with them. You also have to think about food interactions. Blood thinners like warfarin (Coumadin) help to prevent blood clots, a common complication of AFib. However, vitamin K can interact with warfarin and reduce its effectiveness.
Vitamin K is present in leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale. It’s also found in cauliflower, parsley, green tea, and calf’s liver. Avoid large quantities of these foods while taking warfarin.
Grapefruit Juice Can Sting
You might want to think twice about drinking that glass of grapefruit juice when you take your pills in the morning. Grapefruit juice contains a powerful chemical called naringenin. This chemical can interfere with the effectiveness of antiarrhythmic drugs like amiodarone (Cordarone) and dofetilide (Tikosyn). Grapefruit juice can also affect how other medications are absorbed into the blood from the intestines.
Knowledge Is Power
Avoiding certain foods and taking care of your health will help you lead a normal, active life with AFib. Talk with your doctor about medication and food interactions. Follow a low-fat, low-salt diet to help with other underlying health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity, and to reduce your risks for episodes of AFib.
Other tips for reducing AFib episodes include quitting smoking and not using any nicotine products. Regular exercise can also improve your heart health.
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