Are there reversible causes of atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (commonly known as AFib) is the most common heart rhythm disorder in the United States and affects approximately 5.5 million people. Symptoms include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, fatigue, light-headedness, dizziness, and sometimes passing out.

On its own, atrial fibrillation is not generally a life threatening condition, but it can cause stroke or congestive heart failure if left untreated. It can also be extremely limiting to a person’s lifestyle due to fatigue, shortness of breath, and palpitations. 

Atrial fibrillation can be caused by many things, and some of those causes are reversible, which means a patient’s symptoms can improve or stop entirely without additional heart rhythm medications or a surgical procedure. 

Reversible lifestyle causes

Atrial fibrillation can be caused by high blood pressure, obesity, sleep apnea, elevated blood sugar, or alcohol intake. While some of these causes are also medical conditions, they can all be impacted by a patient’s lifestyle. 

Obesity, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and elevated blood sugar (typically caused by type II diabetes that is not well controlled) can all be improved by losing weight through diet and exercise. As those conditions improve, a patient’s atrial fibrillation symptoms will often improve as well.

There is a strong correlation between excess alcohol intake and atrial fibrillation. In patients with this lifestyle cause, reducing or eliminating alcohol intake can have a big impact on the frequency or severity of their atrial fibrillation symptoms. 

Reducing atrial fibrillation symptoms through diet and exercise

We recommend a consistent healthy diet by eating the right foods and tracking calories regularly, plus getting 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days per week for healthy weight loss. Considering the link between obesity and AFib, patients who lose greater than 10% of their body weight could see a 60% reduction in the need for stronger treatments, such as heart rhythm medications or ablation procedures.

Extreme weight loss or the use of stimulants to lose weight can be harmful to your overall health and actually cause or worsen symptoms of atrial fibrillation. In some rare cases, surgery may be needed for a patient to lose weight and improve these modifiable health conditions. 

Reversible medical causes

Hyperthyroidism, or elevated thyroid levels, is also strongly correlated with atrial fibrillation, especially if left untreated. A simple lab test can check thyroid levels. In many cases, when hyperthyroidism is well controlled through medication or other treatment, a patient’s atrial fibrillation can be eliminated completely.  

When treatment is still necessary

Some patients will still require treatment for atrial fibrillation, either through stronger heart rhythm medications, daily use of blood thinners, electrical cardioversion to shock the heart back into proper rhythm, or an ablation procedure. This may include patients whose atrial fibrillation is so severe they are unable to take the necessary action to modify lifestyle factors prior to treatment or patients for whom modifying lifestyle factors did not improve their atrial fibrillation. 

However, even for patients who require additional treatment, losing weight through diet and exercise can increase the effectiveness of treatments and help improve their atrial fibrillation. Treating atrial fibrillation medically can improve overall symptoms, but for long-term prevention of atrial fibrillation, it’s still critical for patients to do their part in reducing lifestyle factors that may cause it. 

If you are experiencing symptoms of atrial fibrillation, contact the Oklahoma Heart Hospital today for an appointment with one of our physicians to discuss your treatment options.