Atrial fibrillation, or AFib for short, is a condition that causes an irregular heartbeat. Certain foods, such as caffeine or alcohol, have the potential to trigger AFib. A diet that promotes heart health may help manage and reduce the symptoms of this condition.
A suitable diet may also decrease the risk of developing other heart conditions alongside AFib, including heart disease.
In this article, we explore what AFib is, foods to eat and avoid, exercise techniques, and other potential tips for managing this condition.
- having overweight
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- alcohol consumption
- obstructive sleep apnea
- high cholesterol
- having a family history of AFib
A 2017 review found that a plant-based diet high in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains can decrease obesity and hypertension. As these are risk factors for AFib, such dietary measures may help prevent someone from developing the condition.
The benefits of the Mediterranean diet for AFib include:
Overall heart health
A study in Circulation Research found that people who follow the Mediterranean diet have better overall heart health compared with those who do not.
Platelets are blood cells that help the body form clots to stop bleeding. A 2015 study found that the Mediterranean diet can positively affect platelet function for people who have AFib.
The Mediterranean diet may lower cholesterol levels. As high cholesterol is a risk factor for AFib, someone who lowers their cholesterol will reduce their chances of developing the condition.
Reduced risk of heart attack and stroke
Although these diets may have a positive effect on AFib, if someone wishes to change their food habits, they should discuss their options with a registered dietitian first.
The AHA list these foods to eat on the Mediterranean diet:
chicken and turkey
nuts and seeds
highly processed foods
fatty, processed meats
Each meal should contain a good portion of vegetables, a source of protein, a complex carbohydrate, and unsaturated fat. In addition to olive oil, this fat may include avocado oil, flaxseed oil, or hemp seed oil.
If a person needs inspiration for potential meals under the Mediterranean diet, the AHA provide a wide range of recipe ideas.
If a person is vegetarian or vegan, they can follow a more general plant-based diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and proteins from nonanimal sources.
Foods to avoid may include those that directly trigger symptoms and raise the risk of heart disease and cholesterol. These include:
Caffeine and energy drinks
The AHA recommends that people avoid excessive amounts of caffeine. However, one study found that drinking 1–3 cups of coffee daily may reduce AFib in males. If a person believes that caffeine could be a personal trigger, they may wish to avoid caffeinated foods and drinks, such as coffee and tea.
A 2014 study found that even moderate alcohol intake could be a risk factor for AFib. Therefore, it may be advisable to limit or avoid alcohol.
In general, red meats such as beef or lamb tend to have higher amounts of saturated fat than white meat. Saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for AFib. A person who substitutes red meat for plant-based protein may lower their cholesterol levels.
Processed foods, such as ready meals or sausages, tend to have large quantities of salt and preservatives. It may be best to limit the intake of these as they can adversely affect the heart.
Sugary foods and drinks
Someone may have more frequent AFib episodes if they consume food with large quantities of salt. Reducing salt intake may be a useful way to help reduce AFib.
If a person follows the Mediterranean diet, they will also need to limit much of the same foods listed above.
In addition to diet, exercise may also help manage AFib risk factors, such as obesity and hypertension.
A 2016 study suggests that people with AFib who exercise regularly have a lower arrhythmia burden than those who do not. This group also had fewer episodes and milder symptoms.
Research suggests that even a small amount of low impact exercise helps reduce the frequency of AFib symptoms.
A person with AFib can consider doing low impact exercises, such as walking, light jogging, or swimming. They should start slowly and build up gradually so they can exercise several times per week.
Some people with AFib may have a pacemaker. A person who has recently had a pacemaker fitted should avoid strenuous exercise for 4–6 weeks. After this time, they can continue most sports and activities, but they must take precautions in contact sports, such as football or boxing. It is also advisable to avoid strenuous sports, including squash.
Anyone with questions about how soon they can take part in sports after having a pacemaker fitted should talk to their healthcare provider.
There are several other ways a person with AFib can adjust their lifestyle to promote heart health.
People who smoke are 2.1 times more likely to develop AFib. There is also a link between smoking and other diseases, such as coronary artery disease.
Manage sleep conditions
Sleep deprivation, obstructive sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders may increase the risk of AFib coming back after someone has undergone ablation or cardioversion. The management of sleep apnea and stress may help a person improve the quality of their sleep.
Stress, anger, and anxiety have a significant effect on AFib. One study reported an 85% drop in AFib symptoms after people reported feeling happy. Regular relaxation and stress reduction through activities like yoga may help someone manage these emotions.
AFib causes an irregular heartbeat. Several risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, make it more likely that a person will develop AFib.
Diet can help reduce the risk factors that cause AFib and, in some cases, reduce its symptoms. The Mediterranean diet or a plant-based diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and unsaturated fats may benefit overall heart health, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of a heart attack.
Other changes that may improve AFib include doing moderate exercise several times per week, getting high quality sleep, stopping smoking, and prioritizing time to relax and reduce stress.