Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a common heart rhythm disorder. It affects more than 2.5 million Americans. AFib causes the heart to beat in a chaotic and disorganized pattern. This can lead to improper blood flow through your heart and to your body. Symptoms of AFib include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and confusion. 

Doctors typically prescribe medications to prevent and ease AFib symptoms. Minor procedures can also restore normal cardiac rhythm. However, lifestyle changes are often as important as medicinal treatments for AFib patients. These lifestyle changes include food swaps—less fat and sodium, more fruits and vegetables—as well as avoiding other factors that can trigger an AFib episode. Top among these factors are alcohol, caffeine, and stimulants.

Alcohol, Caffeine, Stimulants, and AFib

Alcohol

If you have AFib, pre-dinner cocktails or even a few beers while watching a football game could pose a problem. Research shows that alcohol increases a person’s risk for an AFib episode. In fact, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that moderate alcohol consumption increased a person’s risk for AFib symptoms. This was especially true for people 55 or older. Moderate drinking—whether it’s wine, beer, or spirits—is measured as one to 14 drinks per week for women and one to 21 drinks per week for men. Heavy drinking or binge drinking more than 5 drinks in a day also greatly increases a person’s risk for experiencing AFib symptoms.

Caffeine

Caffeine is found in many foods and drinks, including coffee, tea, chocolate, and energy drinks. For years, doctors told patients with cardiac problems to avoid the stimulant entirely. Now, however, scientists aren’t so sure. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that caffeine is only dangerous for people with AFib at very high doses and in extraordinary circumstances. The researchers concluded that most patients with AFib could handle normal amounts of caffeine, like what’s found in cups of coffee, without worrying about potential AFib-related problems. 

The bottom line is that recommendations for caffeine intake with AFib vary. Your doctor has a better understanding of your situation, your sensitivities, and the risks you may face if you consume caffeine. Talk with them about how much caffeine you can have.

Dehydration

Alcohol and caffeine consumption can make your body dehydrated. Dehydration can cause an AFib event. A dramatic shift in your body’s fluid levels—from consuming too little or even too much liquid—can affect your body’s normal functions. Sweating during summer months or from increased physical activity can make you dehydrated. Viruses that cause diarrhea or vomiting can also cause dehydration.

Stimulants

Caffeine isn’t the only stimulant that can affect your heart rate. Some over-the-counter medications, including cold medicines, can trigger AFib symptoms. Check these types of medications for pseudoephedrine. This stimulant may cause an AFib episode if you’re sensitive to it or have other heart conditions that affect your AFib.

Talk with Your Doctor

Time with your doctor is important. Doctor’s visits are often brief. That leaves you with little time to cover a lot of questions or concerns you may have about your AFib. Be prepared before your doctor walks in so you’re able to cover as much as possible in the time you have together. Here, a few things to remember when you are speaking with your doctor:

  • Be honest. Research has shown that patients often underestimate how much alcohol they consume. For your own health, tell the truth. Your doctor needs to know how much you’re consuming so they can properly prescribe medications. If your alcohol intake is a problem, a doctor can connect you with the help you need.
  • Do some research. Speak with family members and create a list of relatives who have any history of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Many of these cardiac conditions are inherited. Your family history can help your doctor assess your risk for experiencing AFib episodes.
  • Write down your questions. Amid a flurry of questions and instructions from your doctor, you may forget the questions you have. Before you head into your appointment, create a list of questions you have. During your appointment, use them as a guide to talk with your doctor about your condition, risks, and behaviors.
  • Bring someone with you. If you can, bring a spouse, a parent, or a friend with you to each doctor’s appointment. They can take notes and instructions from your doctor while you’re being examined. They can also help you stick with your treatment plan. Having support from a partner, family, or friends can be really helpful if the treatment plan involves major lifestyle changes.