We are truly witnessing an epidemic in atrial fibrillation, more commonly known as a-fib. In fact, one in four adults in the United States now will experience at least one episode of a-fib in their lifetime. What is atrial fibrillation? A-fib is the most common heart rhythm abnormality. Typically, the heartbeat is very rapid and chaotic, which can lead to chest discomfort, shortness of breath, fatigue and dizziness.
Why should you worry about atrial fibrillation? A-fib increases the risk of stroke fivefold, doubles the risk of heart failure, doubles the risk of premature death, and doubles the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. One of the keys to preventing these long-term complications is to maintain normal rhythm.
What causes atrial fibrillation? Certainly genetics plays a role, but the big three causes of a-fib are age, high blood pressure and obesity. Most cases of a-fib, just like other forms of heart disease, are completely preventable. Indeed, studies have shown that 80 percent of heart disease is totally preventable. While we can’t do anything about our age or genetics, we can take control of our lifestyles and make sure our blood pressure is under control and that we maintain an ideal body weight. As two-thirds of all Americans are now overweight, is it any wonder why atrial fibrillation has become so commonplace?
Sleep apnea is also a big cause of a-fib. However, for most patients, sleep apnea is just a consequence of obesity. If we can lose the weight, the sleep apnea will likely go away, as well.
What should you do if you have atrial fibrillation? The most critical thing to do is to make sure you are protected against having a stroke. Patients with a-fib and multiple risk factors for stroke will need to be treated with a potent blood thinner. For those without multiple additional risk factors for stroke, an aspirin may be enough.
Medications, shocking the heart back into rhythm or even a catheter ablation procedure to potentially cure atrial fibrillation may be necessary. Recently, Intermountain Healthcare published a large study of several thousand patients that showed for the first time that an outpatient catheter ablation procedure for atrial fibrillation was not only able to eliminate a-fib in most patients, but was also able to eliminate the increased risk of death, strokes, and dementia/Alzheimer’s disease that comes from a-fib.
With a-fib, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure. Here are four tips to prevent or even reverse atrial fibrillation. These tips assume you are not a smoker because smoking is the number one cause of preventable heart problems.
1. Get Moving
According to the American Heart association, only one-third of adults get “enough” physical activity, which is defined as 150 minutes each week of at least moderate activity—that is a mere 21 minutes each day. We also have to move throughout the day. A recently published study showed that sitting more than three hours a day can shorten your life by two years. Being physically active will significantly lower your blood pressure and is a critical component of weight loss, both of which are critical to preventing or reversing a-fib.
Thus, for my patients I now recommend taking 10,000 steps a day and exercising for 30 minutes each day in addition to the 10,000 steps. Even cardiologists need to get moving more as the average cardiologist only takes about 6,000 steps a day. Just taking 10,000 steps per day, as measured by a pedometer, has been shown to result in about a 5-pound weight loss - without dieting - and a four-point reduction in blood pressure.
The best way to get moving is to use a pedometer. Indeed, studies have shown that merely wearing a pedometer will increase the number of steps you take by 2,500 each day. Somehow, the act of wearing a pedometer changes your motivation to move more.
This means that you can expect to burn an extra 100 calories a day just by tracking your steps with a pedometer! If you do the math, you can expect to burn 36,500 calories or lose more than 10 pounds a year just by wearing a pedometer. Of course, if you can log 10,000 steps a day and engage in physical activity for 30 minutes each day you will lose much more weight than this and your blood pressure will drop noticeably.
2. Avoid Processed Foods
You could not pick a better recipe for high blood pressure and obesity than processed foods. I define processed foods as any food item that is already prepared, whether it comes in a box, bakery container, soda can, soup can, jar, frozen dinner or pizza, salad dressing bottle, or 99 percent of what you eat at restaurants or fast food places.
Processed foods are packed with salt, sugar and unhealthy fats. You have to read the labels. I recently looked at a label of “healthy” whole wheat bread. I was surprised to see that two slices of this “healthy” bread had 500 mg of sodium and 12 grams of sugar! It is a mystery why food manufactures feel they need to add huge quantities of salt and 3 teaspoons of sugar to two slices of “healthy” whole wheat bread. (Did you know that one teaspoon equals 4g of sugar?)
Moreover, these foods have been shown to be highly addictive. The processed food industry knows this and these addictions lead to huge corporate profits. We need to get back to the basics and only purchase “real food” and then prepare our own food, fresh!
3. Focus on Plant-Based Diet and Fish
If we can focus our diets on fresh whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, beans and fish we will dramatically reduce the salt in our diets and we will definitely lose weight. Indeed, studies have shown that if you can eat more of these items in your diet, your weight will drop an average of 7 pounds without even dieting and your blood pressure will drop 11 points. In addition, this type of a diet has been shown to help prevent heart disease, cancer, dementia, and significantly prolonging life.
4. Maintain a Wellness Mindset
Enough cannot be said about the link between emotional health and heart disease. For years it has been shown that anger, depression, and anxiety are all strong risk factors for heart disease.
The same is true with atrial fibrillation. Did you know that maintaining a positive outlook on life and feeling happy, as well as management of stress have all been shown to help prevent atrial fibrillation? Even yoga, which is a great way to manage stress and improve mood, has recently been shown to decrease the likelihood of atrial fibrillation by 50%.
Whatever you can do to improve your mood and manage stress can have a huge benefit to your health. While physical activity can be especially helpful to maintain a wellness mindset, I also recommend some of the following activities to help maintain a wellness mindset:
- Spend time in nature. Go into the mountains or even outside. Being outdoors has been shown to improve well-being.
- Keep a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing down three things you are grateful for in your life each day.
- Invest more in the relationships in your life. We are social creatures and the more meaningful relationships we have, the healthier we are. Look for opportunities to spend more time with others.
- Look for opportunities to serve or help others. As we give ourselves to others for a greater purpose, we feel happier and our health will improve.
- Meditation. Meditation, in whatever form, can have a profound, relaxing effect which is very helpful to the cardiovascular system.