As an electrophysiologist, I see people with heart rhythm problems or irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmias. The most common type of arrhythmia I treat is atrial fibrillation, also referred to AFib.
If you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, first, know that you are not alone. AFib affects millions of Americans. Most people with AFib have an underlying cardiovascular condition such as coronary artery disease (blockages in blood vessels), congestive heart failure (weak pumping function) or hypertension (high blood pressure).
Some people living with AFib have no symptoms. But most people experience symptoms like the following:
- Palpitations, or the feeling that your heart is beating too fast, too hard, or skipping a beat
- Shortness of breath
The most concerning consequence of atrial fibrillation is a stroke. But there’s good news—medications and minimally invasive procedures can be used to treat AFib and lower your risk of stroke. While there is not a 100% cure for AFib, there are effective ways to manage it.
Here are my top four heart healthy tips for living with AFib.
1. Eat a nourishing, heart-healthy diet.
Staying heart healthy encompasses two important lifestyle components—diet and exercise.
These recommendations are designed to help prevent hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, all of which are risk factors for atrial fibrillation.
For a nourishing diet that will support your heart health and help prevent hypertension, diabetes and obesity (all risk factors for AFib), consume more of these:
- Wide variety of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains and products made up mostly of whole grains
- Healthy sources of protein (mostly plants such as legumes and nuts; fish and seafood; low-fat or nonfat dairy; and, if you eat meat and poultry, ensuring it is lean and unprocessed)
- Liquid non-tropical vegetable oils
- Minimally processed foods
- Foods prepared with little or no salt
It’s best to limit or avoid alcohol intake (binge drinking can initiate Afib) and added sugars.
2. Stay physically active.
Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (or an equal combination of both) each week. Be aware, however, that extreme endurance exercise such as running marathons increases the risk of AFib. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have related to exercise.
3. Improve sleep habits (and get evaluated for sleep apnea).
Disruptive sleep—both too much and too little—has been associated with atrial fibrillation episodes. The sweet spot for sleep duration is 6-8 hours.
Obstructive sleep apnea can also trigger AFib episodes. Symptoms of sleep apnea include abnormally slow or shallow breathing or stopping of breathing while asleep. If you experience sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about appropriate interventions such as a CPAP.
4. Live tobacco-free.
Don’t smoke, vape or use tobacco or nicotine products—and avoid secondhand smoke or vapor. The more you smoke, the higher your risk of atrial fibrillation. The good news is that the risk of AFib is reduced considerably for those who quit.
There you have it—the top four tips for living healthy with atrial fibrillation. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or find care for AFib today.
About the author
Manish Assar, MD
Manish Assar, MD, is a cardiac electrophsyiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas and Baylor University Medical Center. He was a principal investigator of the CRYSTAL AF trial comparing long-term implanted heart monitors to standard external monitors.