You want to make sure your loved one who has atrial fibrillation is living as healthfully as possible for someone with their condition. Like anyone else, a person with AFib will be healthier and feel better when he or she eats well, gets regular exercise, doesn't smoke, and minimizes stress.
You don't need to know anything special to prepare food for someone with AFib or guide them about what to eat. Like everyone, people with AFib need plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. They also need to avoid foods high in saturated fats (red meat and baked goods) and trans fats (margarine, fast food, and packaged food).
Since high blood pressure can contribute to AFib, it’s also a good idea to minimize sodium. Add flavor to foods using a variety of spices and herbs instead of salt. Avoid salty foods, including canned soups, frozen entrees, and processed foods.
Here's what the plate of a person with AFib should look like at each meal:
- Two-thirds of the plate covered with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans
- One-third or less covered with animal protein
To build AFib-friendly menus, go to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) web site and look for the American Plate tool. The AICR designed the tool to help people with AFib stay at a healthy weight by eating nutritious foods.
Consistent Vitamin K for AFib
Your loved one with AFib may take a blood thinner like Coumadin (warfarin, jantoven) to lower their greater risk of stroke. Vitamin K interferes with warfarin, and many green leafy vegetables are high in vitamin K. So should you avoid serving these veggies to your loved one?
Just the opposite, says Greg Feld, MD, director of cardiac electrophysiology at the University of California, San Diego. People with AFib need to "have a healthy diet with vegetables! Don’t cut back on veggies and salads.”
The key, Feld says, is for a person with AFib to eat a consistentamount of veggies high in vitamin K. For instance, don’t eat salad every day one week and not at all the next. “For my patients, I tell them to eat plenty of vegetables, just not to make any sudden changes in their diet, and we’ll adjust their warfarin dose to keep it at therapeutic levels.”
Activity for AFib
Your loved one with AFib may worry that exercising too vigorously could cause an episode of fibrillation, with symptoms like palpitations, shortness of breath, and dizziness. You may want to encourage them to exercise, because doing so can help reduce some of the factors that affect AFib, such as having high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
“For most people with AFib, their target heart rate to get good aerobic exercise doesn’t need to be over 120 beats per minute,” says Feld. If your loved one keeps their heart rate around that range and is taking on antiarrhythmic medication, they should be fine, Feld says. You can encourage your loved one by reassuring them that there’s no need to exercise so intensely that it pushes them into AFib.
As with any medical condition, people with AFib need to consult their doctors before starting any exercise program.
Smoking, Alcohol, and Caffeine
Smoking is at the top of the list of things people with AFib should avoid. Smoking is a cardiac stimulant, and nicotine can make AFib worse. Plus, smoking is a general risk factor for coronary artery disease, which is linked to AFib.
Helping your loved one with AFib quit smoking is one of the best things you can do for their health. Suggest a variety of techniques to quit, such as trying hypnosis, cognitive behavioral therapy, the nicotine patch, support groups, or electronic cigarettes.
Drinking caffeine and alcohol can both trigger AFib. Moderation is key, Feld says.
“If someone has a glass of wine once in a while, that’s a normal lifestyle habit, and it won’t usually cause AFib episodes in most people. It’s the same with caffeine: I tell my patients that one cup a day is probably not harmful,” he says.
“But don’t overdo it. Three cups of coffee a day or three glasses of wine a night is not a good idea for someone with AFib. Some people are more susceptible than others, too: If you notice that you go into AFib within an hour every time you have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, then you should avoid them completely.”
Reduce AFib Triggers: Bust Stress
Have you noticed that your loved one with AFib has episodes of anxiety, fear, and depression? Most people with AFib do. Stress is a common trigger for AFib episodes. More than half of people who have AFib say that stress plays a big role in aggravating their condition.
When you’re caring for someone who has AFib, you may be under a lot of stress, too. Make it a goal to ease tension and bring harmony back into the house.
Each day schedule relaxation for both of you. It can be easy for you and your loved one to fall into a pattern of worrying about their illness, focusing on appointments and tests, and putting off fun activities. Schedule fun and relaxation into your days just as you would a doctor’s visit. Taking time to relax is part of treating AFib.
Practice relaxation exercises together. “There is some evidence that meditation and stress reduction may help to reduce the risk of a-fib,” Feld says. Yoga and tai chi are two easy, low-impact relaxation exercises that have been found to lower blood pressure and ease stress in general, which is good for everyone.
Manage your own stress. As a caregiver, you probably often put yourself last. Don’t try to handle all the stresses and problems of life with a chronic illness on your own. Ask for help. Join a caregivers’ support group. (A hospital or cardiologist’s office can probably help you find one.) When someone asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?” say, "Yes! Thank you." Give them a specific job to do, like shopping, washing your car, or coming over to spend the evening with you.
Remember: You cannot care for anyone if you don’t take good care of yourself!