Scientists have found that weight loss is an effective method for reducing the symptoms of atrial fibrillation.

A study is highlighting the benefits of weight loss for people with atrial fibrillation (AFib).

AFib is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder that causes the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, to beat irregularly or too quickly. AFib is responsible for more hospitalizations than heart failure, directly costing the U.S. over $6 billion annually.

Symptoms of AFib include racing heart, dizzy spells, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Although some people with AFib experience no symptoms, they’re still at risk for blackouts, heart failure, and stroke.

Obesity, hypertension, and diabetes have all been linked to an increased risk of developing AFib. For that reason, Dr. Prashanthan Sanders, in Adelaide, Australia, decided to examine whether weight loss could help reduce the symptoms and severity of AFib.

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Patients in Sanders’ study were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group received standard care for any existing medical risks, plus written and verbal advice on how to lose weight, eat right, and exercise. By comparison, the second group received the same advice, but were also placed on a strict diet with light exercise.

For the first eight weeks, patients in the second group ate only 800-1200 calories per day in a diet that was high in animal and plant protein and had a low glycemic index. They also took fish oil tablets. For exercise, they began with 20 minutes of walking or cycling three times a week with a gradual increase to 45 minutes. After eight weeks, the ultra-low-calorie diet was gradually phased out and replaced with a more general low glycemic index diet for the next 13 months.

“Weight loss requires motivation and reduction in calorie intake,” Sanders, professor of cardiology and Director of the Centre for Heart Rhythm Disorders at the University of Adelaide and the Royal Adelaide Hospital, said in an interview with Healthline. “During this time, we took the opportunity to discuss lifestyle changes that would sustain the weight loss. Once people start losing weight, they feel more encouraged and motivated to continue.”

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Sanders’ approach worked. Patients in the group that was in the weight-loss program began to experience a reduction in their AFib symptoms after only three months. Six months into the program, the difference was significant. Patients who had lost weight experienced symptoms less frequently, less severely, and for shorter duration.

Heart scans also showed that the walls of the patients’ hearts had thinned, allowing them to move more flexibly to reduce the fibrillations and associated symptoms.

“Management of weight and risk factors are an essential component of managing atrial fibrillation,” Sanders said. “Weight contributes to blood pressure, sleep apnea, and metabolic syndrome. Patients should seek guidance from their physicians or local services to manage optimally their risk factors: weight, blood pressure, glucose intolerance or diabetes, cholesterol, sleep apnea, smoking, and alcohol.”

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