atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a disorder that causes your heart to beat irregularly. It may increase your risk of stroke, heart failure, and other complications. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with AFib, you may be wondering how it will impact your everyday activities. The good news is that certain lifestyle changes and treatment choices may help you live a fuller life.

AFib symptoms and causes

About 5.6 million people in the United States live with AFib. Nonvalvular AFib refers to atrial fibrillation that isn’t caused by mechanical heart valve issues. You may or may not have had any symptoms before being diagnosed with AFib. In fact, you might be diagnosed while having an exam for something totally unrelated.

If you do experience symptoms, they might include:

  • heart palpitations — a racing or flip-flopping sensation
  • weakness and fatigue
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • confusion
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain

Possible causes of nonvalvular AFib include:

  • high blood pressure
  • coronary artery disease
  • congenital heart defects
  • thyroid or metabolic issues
  • certain medications
  • caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol
  • lung diseases or pneumonia
  • sleep apnea

How to live better

It’s important to understand that even if you don’t experience symptoms with AFib, you still risk stroke and other health issues. But being diagnosed with this condition doesn’t mean that your life is over. Are you ready to gain control over your AFib? Focusing on certain lifestyle changes and choosing certain treatments may help you stay healthier, reduce your risk of complications, and allow you to live your best life.

Speak with your doctor about treatments

Before anything else, keep in close contact with your doctor about your treatment options. Procedures such as electrical cardioversion may help set your heart into a more normal rhythm. There are also drugs — dofetilide (Tikosyn), propafenone, and sotalol (Betapace), for example — that may help prevent AFib episodes. Side effects with medications may include nausea, fatigue, or dizziness. Your doctor may be able to suggest ways to overcome these side effects.

While taking blood thinners doesn’t necessarily do anything to ease the symptoms you may experience with AFib, such medication can reduce your stroke risk by up to 80 percent. If there’s some reason you can’t or don’t wish to take medication, you may want to ask your doctor about implant devices such as the WATCHMAN and LARIAT. These devices may free you from dependence on blood thinners. They reduce your risk of stroke by blocking off the left atrial appendage, the area where blood collects and clots in your heart.

Examine your eating and exercise habits

Obesity may contribute to AFib. A study published by the American College of Cardiology revealed that people with the disorder who lost just 10 percent of their weight were able to better control their symptoms in the long term. Eating well and moving your body are two big components of any weight loss plan. They can also help you feel great and have more energy.

How to start? Eat foods that are low in sodium and solid fats. You should also try to consume plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Your doctor may have suggestions on a diet and exercise plan that will work for you. If you’re new to exercise, start slow. Even walking around your neighborhood can have big benefits for your health.

Stop smoking today

While AFib increases your risk of stroke fivefold, smoking adds even more risk. Smoking may even be related to developing AFib in the first place. In a study published by Heart Rhythm, researchers explain that smoking contributes to more than a twofold increased risk of AFib. They also discovered that smokers who quit the habit had less incidence of AFib compared to the people who kept smoking.

Getting control over a habit like smoking can be daunting. Your doctor may be able to help or point you to resources that can help you quit. If you’d rather do some research on your own, check out the tips, tools, and advice on SmokeFree.gov. On this site, you can build your own smoke-free plan, speak to an expert, and learn more about therapies like nicotine replacement.

Treat other health conditions

Several other factors and health conditions may increase your risk of developing AFib and even complications from AFib.

They include:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • conditions like diabetes, sleep apnea, and lung disease
  • alcohol consumption
  • obesity
  • family history

Make an appointment with your doctor to see about treating these conditions. For example, sleep apnea can be treated by losing weight and by using a CPAP machine. High blood pressure can be controlled by taking certain medications. These conditions independently contribute to a higher stroke risk, so getting them under control — along with your AFib — may significantly lower your stroke risk overall.

While you’re at it, make sure you’re keeping up with all your appointments. Regular medical care may help spot and treat conditions before they turn into life-threatening issues.

Manage your stress levels

If you regularly experience periods of stress and anger, it may cause or worsen your heart rhythm issues. Reducing the stress in your life can help with AFib and make you feel better in general. You may not be able to escape certain responsibilities or issues that lead to these emotions, but you can find coping mechanisms that help you diffuse the stress.

A recent study published by European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing revolves around yoga and AFib. This popular exercise may help you lower your blood pressure and slow your heart rate. Not only that, but the people in the study who followed both traditional treatments and a yoga program reported higher mental health scores and a higher quality of life.

Not into striking poses? Try taking a walk, practicing deep breathing exercises, or even calling a friend to chat — anything that brings you back to calm.

Questions for your doctor

There are other areas of your health care and your life that you may want to discuss with your healthcare provider. If you have specific concerns of your own, make an appointment with your doctor today.

Here are a few questions you might ask:

  • Would losing weight help with my AFib?
  • How can I safely increase my exercise?
  • What foods are best to eat?
  • Are there any foods I should avoid while on my medications?
  • What resources might help me stop smoking?
  • Should I limit alcohol, caffeine, or anything else from my diet?
  • I deal with stress — how can I best manage it?
  • Are there any over-the-counter drugs that might cause a rapid heart rate?
  • What new procedures may help me manage my AFib?
  • Do you have suggestions on how to deal with side effects from my medications?

You may want to consider making a written list of questions to bring with you so you don’t forget anything. And be sure to write down the answers your doctor gives you!

The takeaway: Don’t forget about support

Dealing with a condition like AFib can feel overwhelming at times. You don’t need to navigate all these changes on your own. After you speak with your doctor and make certain lifestyle and treatment changes, consider looking into support groups. The Atrial Fibrillation Support Forum on Facebook, for example, has over 5,600 members. On this page, you can post questions and share your own thoughts on different aspects of living with AFib. Engaging in a community of people who are dealing with similar issues will show you that you are not alone.