Atrial fibrillation makes the top part of your heart race erratically and experts increasingly say it can lead to serious problems, including stroke.
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Afib incidence is on the increase in the U.S. and experts point to many factors behind the surge. One of the most important strategies for controlling the problem is within your grasp: maintaining a healthy weight.
The heart of the problem
Your heart responds to electrical signals that tell it when to contract and when to relax. When these signals are blocked, misrouted or not controlled properly, your heart receives faulty instructions and abnormal heart rhythms occur. In the case of Afib, your heart may beat quickly and irregularly. When your heart is in Afib, it cannot pump blood as efficiently. Long-term Afib can lead to serious complications including increased risk of stroke and eventual heart failure.
What increases risk for afib
You can’t control certain risk factors for Afib like family history or getting older. But, many overweight people can lower their risk for Afib simply by losing weight, exercising moderately and eating a healthy diet.[Tweet “Maintaining a healthy #weight makes for a healthy #heartbeat, reducing #afib risks.”]
Being overweight sets off a chain reaction of events that interferes with healthy blood flow through the body and heart. Blood flow is “at the heart” of cardiac function. Blood pressure, sodium and other electrolyte levels, and blood sugar levels all must be in balance for the heart’s electrical system to function normally.
Cleveland Clinic translational scientist and researcher David Van Wagoner, PhD, stresses the importance of the heart-body connection. “Often times people look at cardiac and metabolic conditions as separate issues, but what is the big picture? All systems are related and work together. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is important,” he says.
Study confirms weight-afib connection
A recent Australian study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and presented at the 2014 scientific sessions of the Heart Rhythm Society confirms Dr. Van Wagoner’s holistic view of heart rhythm disorders and their management.
In this study, researchers divided a series of obese Afib patients into two groups. Both received the same medical treatment. One group was also treated with a structured weight reduction program, while the other (control) group only received advice about lifestyle changes.
The weight-reduction group succeeded both in losing weight and in lowering the incidence and severity of their atrial fibrillation-related symptoms. In contrast, the control group lost less weight, and did not see an improvement in their Afib symptoms.
For those that are overweight, losing weight can be a powerful tool in the fight against Afib. Dr. Van Wagoner outlines the number of benefits triggered by weight loss: “Weight loss helps to reduce high blood pressure (BP). In turn, lower BP is good for coronary blood flow and decreases arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms) burden. Weight loss can also improve sleep quality”
In contrast, weight gain worsens risk factors.
- Sleep apnea often becomes worse with weight gain. Sleep apnea is a risk factor linked to Afib and coronary disease.
- Diabetes risk increases with weight gain. Diabetes disrupts blood sugar levels, leading to altered metabolic function and nerve activity, all of which increase Afib risk.
Seeing the big picture
Dr. Van Wagoner summarizes, “If you are obese, you have increased blood pressure, increased sympathetic nerve activity (part of the autonomic nervous system) and you are more prone to sleep apnea. All of these are risk factors for coronary artery disease and atrial fibrillation.”
Dr. Van Wagoner stresses the need to look at the whole picture rather than just a few details. “I want to emphasize that this is all one problem – atrial fibrillation often reflects your cardiovascular health. Efforts to reach and maintain a healthy weight can reduce your risk for Afib, while improving your blood pressure and sleep quality. These are not separate diseases – they are all parts of the same big picture.”