The Grapevine

Irregular Heartbeats: How To Reduce Your Risk

Problems with heart rhythm, known as arrhythmias, mean that your heart is prone to beating in an irregular manner, going too fast or too slow. While this can be harmless, certain arrhythmias are tied to heart problems.

One in four adults over the age of 40 is at risk for atrial fibrillation (AF) — the most common type of irregular heartbeat. AF has been tied to an elevated risk of stroke and other potential heart complications since it can lead to clots which block blood flow.

So, what can you do to manage risk factors? For starters, the American Heart Association recommends reducing high blood pressure and maintaining cholesterol levels.

While that deals with the development of the condition, a new study from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) also looked at what the triggers behind specific AF episodes were.

"Better understanding of individual-level triggers may help empower patients and represents a novel approach to improving quality of life and reducing health care use for AF," said Gregory Marcus, a cardiologist and associate chief of cardiology for research in the UCSF Division of Cardiology. "For those with an AF family history, understanding gene-environment interactions may reveal novel mechanisms and, ultimately, help to counsel patients regarding the best lifestyle interventions."

By examining AF patients, the researchers were able to highlight stimulants like alcohol and caffeine, affecting 35 percent and 28 percent of patients respectively. Poor sleep habits were reported as a trigger by 21 percent of the patients. 

Interestingly, the study also found exercise to be one of the possible triggers — but this may raise questions as a heart-healthy lifestyle involves physical activity and losing extra weight.

While experts say the link is certainly a complicated one, most agree that patients with AF should exercise without pushing their body beyond their comfort zone. Ayman Hussein, a heart rhythm disorder specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, noted that this particularly applies to male patients.

Although mild-intensity or moderate-intensity exercise can have a protective effect, he told Everyday Health that intense exercise might carry a higher risk of AF in some cases. With guidance from a doctor, patients "need to progressively build strength and endurance," he advised.

Walking, yoga, swimming, bicycling, Tai Chi, gardening are some of the low-risk activities one can take up. Of course, this should be accompanied by a healthy dietary pattern — such as the DASH diet or a Mediterranean-style diet — and the elimination of smoking habits.

Reducing your stress levels is also important since anger and intense stress can lead to abnormal heart rhythm, as the Mayo Clinic notes. To achieve this, look into a few tips on how you can tap into humor or use self-care strategies.