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Tips for Living With Atrial Fibrillation

Don't Ignore the Warning Signs

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular heartbeat. For some, AFib never causes a problem. For others, it can lead to strokes and heart attacks or heart failure. Symptoms of AFib may include dizziness, fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and chest pain, especially in people with underlying heart disease. If you feel your heart "skipping a beat" often, or you have other AFib symptoms that concern you, see your doctor.

Control Diabetes and Blood Pressure

Diabetes and high blood pressure raise your risk of stroke when you have atrial fibrillation. In fact, stroke occurs about five times more often in people with AFib. By eating foods low in sugar and salt -- and controlling your weight -- you can help lower your blood sugar and blood pressure, and reduce your risk of AFib complications.

Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet

A diet low in refined sugars, trans fats, and sodium helps to control your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. At least half your plate should come from plants, such as leafy greens and colorful fruits. Add heart-healthy fats, like salmon, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Go for other healthy sources of protein, such as legumes. And eat whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates for the heart-healthy fiber.

Quit Smoking

Studies show that current and former smokers have an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Plus, smoking increases your risk of stroke. Put the cigarettes down for good to boost your odds of living a healthier life. There are many smoking cessation aids -- such as the nicotine patch, gum, or lozenges -- that may help. Medical treatment to stop smoking may double your chances of quitting.

Take Care With Blood Thinners

After being diagnosed with AFib, your doctor may prescribe several medications, including blood thinners to reduce your risk of stroke. These anticoagulant drugs can interact with some foods, supplements, or even other medications. Be sure to ask your doctor what you can eat -- and what foods to avoid -- while taking your medications.

Limit Alcohol and Stimulants

A glass of wine at dinner is probably OK for most people with atrial fibrillation. But moderate to heavy drinking and binge drinking are linked to further heart rhythm disturbances, even in people with healthy hearts. This is something you want to avoid with AFib. Stimulants -- like decongestants with pseudoephedrine -- can also aggravate your condition.

Don't Overdo the Coffee

In the past, some doctors told people with atrial fibrillation never to drink coffee. In recent studies, however, caffeine doesn’t appear to be linked to more AFib episodes. But drinking too much caffeine can raise your blood pressure, which you want to avoid. Keep your caffeine intake moderate to help keep you on an even keel.

Get Your Body Moving

Regular physical activity can help you reduce your risk of complications from heart disease. But very vigorous exercise can sometimes aggravate AFib. Talk with your doctor about what kind of exercise program is best for you. Be sure to start slowly. Walking for at least half an hour every day is usually a good place to begin.

Don't Skip Your Shots

Studies show that people who get regular flu and pneumonia vaccines have a lower risk of heart attack. When you're living with atrial fibrillation, it's wise to do whatever you can to stay healthy. Get your shots before flu season arrives.

Cut Down on Stress

Acute stress can trigger episodes of arrhythmia when you have AFib. And chronic stress often leads to unhealthy habits, such as smoking and heavy drinking -- both bad for your heart. Instead, try yoga to help manage your stress. One small research study found that it may reduce the frequency of AFib episodes by 50%.

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 21, 2013

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