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What Are the Triggers for Atrial Fibrillation?

Overview

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a medical disorder that affects the upper chambers, known as atria, of the heart. People with AFib experience irregular heartbeats caused by abnormal electrical signals in the atria. The electrical impulses erroneously circulate through the atria, causing the atria to contract with an irregular rhythm and fast rate. Different areas of your heart may beat too quickly, too slowly, or in an uneven rhythm in response to the AFib. When the lower chambers, known as ventricles, of the heart beat too quickly during AFib, this is known as AFib with a rapid ventricular response.

Many people who have paroxysmal AFib experience transient episodes brought on by a specific trigger. Recognizing triggers and avoiding them can help you manage AFib effectively. Some of the most common triggers include hormones, medication, and caffeine. Read on to learn about them and many others.

Learn more: What do you want to know about atrial fibrillation? »

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Fatigue and illness

Fatigue and illness

Sleep deprivation, physical illness, and recent surgery are also common triggers for AFib. Whenever your body isn’t running at 100 percent, you’re suffering from physical stress. Stress makes the abnormal electrical activity in your heart more likely to occur. Eating well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep each night, especially when traveling, is crucial for people who have AFib.

Emotional triggers

Emotional triggers

Emotions play a role in many bodily functions. When you’re upset or sad, you might lose your appetite. Being stressed can lead to tight muscles and soreness. Fright, anxiety, or extreme happiness can cause your heart to race or make you feel like your heart has skipped a beat. The range of strong emotions you experience in certain situations can also trigger AFib episodes.

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Hormones

Hormones

The normal fluctuation of hormones may trigger AFib in women. Research has found a connection between normal hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle and the prevalence of supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) in women, which may include SVT due to AFib with RVR. Going through menopause at a younger age may lower one’s risk for developing AFib, according to a recent study.

Exercise

Exercise

In rare cases, an increase in physical exertion can bring on signs of an AFib event. Still, exercise is a healthy habit for almost everyone to embrace. A 2008 issue of Circulation lists exercise as a positive lifestyle adjustment that helps people cope with atrial fibrillation. Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise plan.

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Medication

Medication

If you have AFib, talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements. Cold medications and nasal spray decongestants are common culprits for some people with heart arrhythmias. Your doctor can tell you if specific medications are safe for you to use, or suggest suitable alternatives.

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Alcohol

Alcohol

Alcohol, including beer, wine, and spirits, is also a known AFib trigger. Some people experience symptoms from just a drink or two, while others don’t feel adverse effects in a cardiac sense unless heavy drinking is involved.

The American Journal of Cardiology reports a possible link between alcohol consumption and vagal tone, and its role in AFib. Vagal tone is the level of activity of the vagus nerve, a long nerve that runs from the brainstem through the neck and below, and it affects various organs, including the heart. People that have alcohol triggers of AFib are also more likely to experience increased vagal activity that leads to transient atrial fibrillation episodes.

Read more: Foods to avoid with atrial fibrillation »

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Caffeine

Caffeine

The idea of caffeine as a trigger for AFib is surrounded by controversy in the medical world. Caffeine is a known stimulant that can invigorate your central nervous system and raise your heart rate. For some people, this can generate an AFib event. Each person, however, is different. If you feel that caffeine makes your arrhythmias worse, steer clear of coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas.

Dehydration

Dehydration

You may have an AFib event if you’re dehydrated. A change in fluid levels in your body can affect a number of bodily functions, including heart function. Exhaustion, a change in eating patterns, and physical exertion can bring on dehydration in some situations. Alcohol and caffeinated drinks may also dry you out, increasing your risk even more. Good hydration habits include drinking plenty of water throughout the day, especially in hot weather or when you exercise. Watching your salt intake can also help you avoid dehydration. Too much salt in your diet can also lead to hypertension, which is a major risk factor for atrial fibrillation. Aim for no more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) each day.

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Outlook

Outlook

Although many AFib triggers are common, each person’s experience is unique. It may take a period of trial and error to determine what your personal triggers are. Awareness of your condition and of the situations that can potentially provoke an episode, along with medications, play a large role in helping you control symptoms and living a healthy life.

Q&A: Next steps

Q&A

  • Once my AFib has been triggered, what methods are available to quickly restore the normal sinus rhythm?
  • If you know the trigger that led to your episode of atrial fibrillation, such as you forgot to take your blood pressure reducing medication or being in a stressful situation, addressing the underlying trigger may be able to help resolve the AFib episode quickly. Although it may not permanently stop another Afib episode from occurring later in time, under supervised physician care in the hospital setting, electrically shocking the heart with what is called synchronized electrical cardioversion can be used to quickly put the heart back to normal sinus rhythm. There are different types of intravenous medications that physicians can administer to the AFib patient in an attempt to chemically cardiovert AFib to normal sinus rhythm, and the effectiveness may vary depending on the patient and one’s overall individual state of health. Knowing your Afib status and discussing treatment options with your physician, should your episodes become more frequent or severe, will help you to address the best approach to treating your Afib.

    - Stacy R. Sampson, DO
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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