- Do I need to avoid certain foods for my AFib?
- 6 Things to Avoid Eating (and Drinking) with Arrhythmia
- Adjusting to life with atrial fibrillation
- 10 Diet Tips for Atrial Fibrillation Prevention
- Your Guide to a Heart-Healthy AFib Diet
Do I need to avoid certain foods for my AFib?
If you’re on medications to treat your AFib, it’s important to be informed about food interactions that can interfere with your medications.
For example, anticoagulants, commonly called “blood thinners,” such as warfarin (Coumadin), help to prevent blood clots that occur due to AFib. But Vitamin K in your diet can interact with warfarin and reduce its effectiveness. Vitamin K is found in leafy, dark green vegetables such as spinach and kale, and is also found in cauliflower, parsley, green tea, and calf’s liver. See Anticoagulation and Healthy Nutrition to understand more about eating while on warfarin (Coumadin).
What if certain foods seem to trigger my AFib?
The science on “AFib triggers” has been somewhat mixed. One study published in May 2008 in the AHA’s journal “Circulation” indicates that consuming caffeinated and alcoholic beverages may trigger atrial fibrillation. It goes on to advise individuals with AFib to avoid them. However, a more recent study had a very different finding and indicated that beverages like coffee are not likely to induce AFib.
Finding what works for you
Even if the broad studies do not confirm a definitive link between certain substances like caffeine and atrial fibrillation, many people feel that certain foods and drinks are definitely “triggers” for their individual AFib symptoms. If you believe that coffee and AFib symptoms seem to go hand in hand, you may want to avoid the possible “trigger” for several weeks and chart your symptoms while you do.
What if something in my diet is a “trigger” and I haven’t discovered it yet?
Although there is some value in becoming a “food detective” in order to help your AFib, try not to become too obsessive about possible cause-and-effect ingredients. Stay informed about the latest AFib science as much as you can, and see what you learn through some basic tracking of what you eat.
Perhaps rather than expending energy to identify certain food “culprits” in your diet, you may have better success by putting your efforts toward finding ways to establish and maintain a healthy and balanced diet so that episodes of atrial fibrillation are as non-disruptive as possible to your healthy eating habits.
What about energy drinks and other stimulants?
With the increasing popularity of energy drinks among young people, it will be important that you talk with your doctor about your safety if you use these products. The level of danger to an AFib patient has not been widely studied, but there are incidents in which people have seen a cause-and-effect spike in their symptoms of AFib in response to consuming these beverages.
Your AFib experience can be enhanced by eating a well-balanced diet, tracking what you eat a couple of times each year or for a period of self-study, and doing what you can to avoid those substances that seem to have a clear link with your AFib symptoms.
6 Things to Avoid Eating (and Drinking) with Arrhythmia
Normally, your heart beats between 60 and 100 times a minute. Eating specific foods or drinking certain beverages can raise your heart rate to above 100, creating a feeling that your heart is fluttering, racing or skipping a beat.
If it happens occasionally, it’s likely nothing to worry about. If you have a history of heart problems or if you’ve been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation or arrhythmia, you should take it seriously. An episode of irregular heartbeats could potentially lead to complications like a blood clot or stroke.
Dr. Eric Williams with Mercy Clinic Cardiology has six things that can aggravate arrhythmia:
- Too much caffeine. One or two cups of coffee a day is probably fine. There are even studies that show there are health benefits of caffeine. Don’t overdo it, though – too much caffeine can raise your blood pressure and your heart rate. Watch out for energy drinks that have mega doses of the stimulant.
- Alcohol. Heavy drinking can cause damage to your heart cells and cause extra heartbeats. The good news is that your heart may return to normal if you stop drinking. If having a glass of wine with dinner is part of your everyday routine, it’s okay to continue as long as it’s not causing palpitations.
- Sodium. The average American eats an excessive amount of sodium, which can raise your blood pressure, cause structural changes in your blood vessels and make you more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. Foods like deli meats, soup and pizza have high levels of sodium.
- Tyramine. Tyramine is an amino acid that can affect blood pressure. Aged cheese like parmesan and gorgonzola, soy sauce, sauerkraut and salami are full of tyramine.
- Herbal supplements. Dr. Williams encourages his arrhythmia patients to discontinue using any herbal supplements because they may contain stimulants or other ingredients that are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Some supplements may also have negative interactions with heart medications.
- Oversized portions. Eating large meals can lead to heartburn, which can lead to atrial fibrillation. In general, it’s better to eat smaller portions throughout the day instead of three big meals.
Your body may react differently than someone else’s, so it’s a good idea to keep track of your own triggers.
Modifying what you eat and drink might not be enough to fully prevent atrial fibrillation, but it can help lower your risk. Eating a heart healthy diet can also prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even diabetes. Talk to your Mercy doctor to develop a strategy that will keep your heart beating at the right pace for you.
Eric Williams, MD, is a fellowship-trained cardiologist at Mercy Clinic Heart and Vascular – Mercy Heart Hospital St. Louis and Mercy Clinic Cardiology – Rolla. To schedule an appointment in St. Louis, call 314-251-1700. For an appointment in Rolla, call 573-458-6310.
Adjusting to life with atrial fibrillation
Things to consider before you return to your job
There are some people who find it difficult to return to work or to their existing role – particularly if their symptoms aren’t well controlled. Talk with your employer if you are concerned that AF will affect your ability to do your job.
If you have a pacemaker implanted to manage your AF, check with your doctor that it is safe to go back to work. Some work places may have machinery that interferes with your pacemaker. You can find out more about what you may need to avoid on our pacemaker page.
It is also important to consider your levels of stress at work. A recent study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that being stressed at work was associated with a 48% higher risk of atrial fibrillation.
When you’re first diagnosed, you may need to have time off work for treatment and as you start new medication. Your doctor can advise you on the best time for you to return to work.
Tell your employer about any medical and recovery advice your doctor or healthcare team has given you. Discuss the details of your medical certificate with your employer. The medical certificate may indicate, for example, that you’re not fit for work for a period of time or that you may be fit for work under certain conditions, such as:
- a phased return to work
- altered hours
- a change in work duties
- occupational health
If your employer has an occupational health department, they can give you further help and advice about returning to work such as determining what workload is suitable. They may also be able to offer counselling.
If you think your condition will prevent you from returning to work, you can find more information about health and disability benefits available to people with chronic health conditions from the Ministry of Social Development.
Planning for emergencies
It’s a good idea to have a plan in case an emergency situation arises at work, for example if you have:
- an AF episode while at work
- a bleeding injury while at work and are taking anticoagulant medication
This is something you should discuss with your employer or your occupational health team.
Driving at work
If you hold a vocational licence and drive trucks, passenger vehicles, fork lifts, courier vans etc., a symptom-free period of at least six months is generally required before you are deemed fit to drive. Your licence may also be subject to the condition of an annual cardiac assessment.
You’ll need to talk with your doctor and contact the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) about how your condition may affect your job. You should also check with your insurance company to make sure you are fully covered.
Living with atrial fibrillation
AF is a life-long condition that changes over time but there are things you can do to help manage your condition.
Managing your atrial fibrillation
You’re enjoying a second cup of coffee or glass of wine when — wham — your heart starts racing. You remember your doctor saying that atrial fibrillation puts you at greater risk for a stroke, or worse. Is that what’s happening? Should you call 911?
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Probably not, says cardiac dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. You’ve likely just crossed the threshold for one of your triggers.
“We know that caffeine, alcohol and certain foods can often trigger AFib symptoms,” Ms. Zumpano says. Here, she offers suggestions on steps you can take to help keep your symptoms in check.
Find your threshold for triggers
That pounding heartbeat is your body letting you know that something has set off your AFib symptoms.
But you don’t necessarily have to ban alcohol or caffeine (which, aside from coffee, is also found in teas, energy drinks, colas and some over-the-counter medications) completely from your diet. You just need to learn your threshold — how much your body can tolerate before your AFib symptoms kick in, Ms. Zumpano explains.
Take these steps to find your threshold:
- Cut the trigger food or drink (caffeine, for example) from your diet for a few days.
- Reintroduce a small amount (maybe half a cup of coffee).
- If your symptoms return, consider switching to decaffeinated coffee or herbal tea.
- If you have no symptoms at first, try a second cup and see what happens.
There’s no pat answer on what will work best for you, she says. You’ll just need to experiment a bit.
What about following a special diet?
What you eat also certainly plays a role in managing your racing heartbeat.
Ms. Zumpano encourages her patients to follow a Mediterranean-style diet, which puts the focus on plant-based foods. This means building meals and snacks that are rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, nuts and olive oil.
Specific nutritious foods that are a great addition to your diet include:
- Fish rich in omega-3s such as salmon, sardines, herring, tuna and mackerel
- Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries and other fresh fruits
- Oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice and other whole grains
- Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
- Almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts
On the flip side, foods you should limit include:
- Red meat
- Processed foods (such as lunch meats, fast food and chips)
- Baked goods and other sugary foods and drinks (including most fruit juices)
“You should minimize the junk, for lack of a better word,” Ms. Zumpano says. Processed foods, fast foods, fried foods and convenience foods are all high in salt and can all be classified as “junk.”
A high-sodium diet can also be a trigger — not to mention that it can lead to high blood pressure, which also increases your risk of stroke.
Tips for including favorite foods in your diet
Following a healthy diet to help control your AFib doesn’t mean you have to give up all your favorites. Some small adjustments can help.
For instance, instead of buying macaroni and cheese in a box or frozen, make your own using whole-grain pasta, low-fat cheese and skim milk.
Plus, practice portion control. Treat yourself to a donut hole rather than a couple of donuts.
“Portion control gives you the ability to have unacceptable foods in small amounts,” Ms. Zumpano says.
If you are overweight, taking a blood thinner, or have diabetes other health issues, talk to your doctor about other ways to modify your diet to help control your AFib symptoms.
The bottom line? You can help minimize your symptoms by finding your threshold for common triggers like alcohol and caffeine and following a plant-based diet.
10 Diet Tips for Atrial Fibrillation Prevention
Diet alone may not be able to prevent atrial fibrillation, but what you eat definitely counts. In fact, when researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health analyzed a group of studies on diet and atrial fibrillation, they found evidence that making smart food choices can help reduce your risk. And if you’ve already been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the right diet may help reduce your symptoms.
“The best place to start is by controlling your caloric intake to maintain a healthy weight,” says Oussama Wazni, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “Being overweight can contribute to sleep apnea, which is a big risk factor for atrial fibrillation.”
The next step in atrial fibrillation prevention is to eat a heart-healthy diet. This can help stave off all types of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, plus other atrial fibrillation risk factors, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, Dr. Wazni explains.
The benefits of a heart-healthy diet are huge, but the plan is simple. Here are 10 tips to get you started:
1. Cut back on salt. “Too much salt contributes to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk for atrial fibrillation and make symptoms harder to control,” Wazni notes. You should limit your salt intake to less than 2,400 milligrams a day. That means you need to read food labels — prepared foods like canned soups and processed meats tend to have a high sodium content — and limit use of the salt shaker when cooking and at the table
2. Eat more fish. The University of Minnesota researchers pointed out that the unsaturated fats in fish can reduce your risk for heart disease and protect your heart against abnormal heartbeats. This makes fish a valuable food choice for atrial fibrillation prevention, although more studies are needed. The National Institutes of Health advises eating fish at least twice a week. When preparing fish, try heart-healthy cooking techniques such as grilling, broiling, baking, and steaming — studies didn’t find any benefits from fried fish.
3. Limit meat and dairy. The saturated fats in animal-based foods like butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, and fatty meats aren’t good for heart health. These are the types of fats that contribute to heart disease and stroke. Limit saturated fat to 10 percent of your total daily calorie intake by choosing healthier low- or no-fat dairy and lean meats (trim any visible fat before cooking). Also avoid processed and fried foods.
4. Count cholesterol. For a heart-healthy diet, you should consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. If you like eggs in the morning, remember that just one egg yolk has 213 milligrams of cholesterol (the whites have none, so these are okay.) Try not to use more than four eggs yolks a week for heart-healthy cooking. Organ meats (like liver) and shellfish (notably shrimp) are also high in cholesterol.
5. Fill up on fruits and vegetables. For a healthy heart and a healthy weight, fruits and vegetables provide the most nutrition, fiber, minerals, and vitamins for the least amount of calories. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Conversely, you should avoid foods loaded with sugar and fat, such as processed baked goods, candy, and sugary sodas.
6. Wake up to whole grains. Whole grains have not been fully processed and still have their outer shell — that’s where most of their fiber and nutrients are found. Processed grains, which are used in white bread and regular pasta, have that shell removed and aren’t as good at helping you control your appetite or your blood sugar. Try starting your day with a bowl of whole-grain oatmeal or kasha, and aim for a total of six servings of nutrient-rich whole grains a day.
7. Watch how much you eat. One of the best ways to reach or maintain a healthy weight is to control portion sizes. Restaurant portion sizes can often feed two, and sometimes serving sizes at home can be just as excessive. A food scale can help you learn proper portion sizes. For example, using a food scale can show you what 3 ounces of chicken looks like — which may be smaller than you think. Avoid overeating by eating at the dinner table and not in front of the TV. When eating out, try splitting a main course, ordering a healthy appetizer as your meal, or having half of your entrée wrapped up right away to avoid overeating.
8. Fall in love with heart-healthy cooking. Don’t fatten up heart-healthy foods by cooking them the wrong way. Broil or roast chicken and lean beef. Steam veggies to maximize their natural flavors — and don’t smother them with butter, salt, or sugar. When a recipe calls for some fat, choose the unsaturated kind, such as olive oil or canola oil, in place of butter or lard.
9. Beware of the booze. Too much alcohol can trigger symptoms of atrial fibrillation, or what doctors call “holiday heart syndrome.” A review of studies on alcohol and atrial fibrillation published in the Japanese Circulation Society’s Circulation Journal found that moderate drinking usually doesn’t increase the risk for atrial fibrillation, but heavy drinking does. Moderate drinking usually means one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, but even that could be too much if you have atrial fibrillation. “Some people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol on atrial fibrillation than others and may have symptoms after only one drink,” Wazni warns.
10. Go easy on caffeine. Caffeine is similar to alcohol in that it’s likely to trigger symptoms of atrial fibrillation, Wazni notes. “Drink caffeine in moderation and reduce or eliminate it if symptoms occur.” Although coffee in moderation is unlikely to trigger atrial fibrillation in most people, it’s a known heart stimulant and does increase your heart rate.
A heart-healthy diet is smart to stave off atrial fibrillation and other heart problems, not to mention risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. If you’re struggling to adapt your diet, ask your doctor for ideas or a referral to a dietitian who can help you create a road map for improving your heart health.
Your Guide to a Heart-Healthy AFib Diet
6. Understand what foods to include and avoid with AFib
If you are taking warfarin (Coumadin®), foods high in vitamin K, like leafy greens, affect how well it works to protect you against blood clots and stroke. XARELTO® has no known food interactions—you can eat the healthy foods that you like, knowing you’re still protected from the risk of stroke.
People with AFib who are sensitive to or allergic to gluten may want to avoid it. Inflammation caused by a gluten allergy can affect the nerves that control the rhythm of your heart.
If you are taking certain rate or rhythm drugs for AFib (amiodarone or dofetilide), you may want to avoid grapefruit. It contains a chemical that can interfere with their effectiveness.
This is one mineral you may want to add to your diet. Some research shows that low magnesium levels can negatively impact the rhythm of your heart. Foods that can help you get more magnesium are almonds, cashews, peanuts, spinach, avocados, whole grains, and yogurt.
Low potassium levels may increase your risk for an AFib episode. Get more potassium in your diet by eating avocados, bananas, apricots, oranges, sweet potatoes, beets, tomatoes, prunes, or squash. If you are taking certain rate or rhythm drugs, talk to your doctor before adding more potassium to your diet because it may affect their effectiveness.