Time and time again, you have heard how to keep your heart healthy: exercise, eat right, don’t smoke. And while it’s important for everyone to take care of their heart, it’s even more important if you have an abnormal heart rhythm.
An abnormal heart rhythm, or an arrhythmia, occurs when your heart beats too quickly, too slowly or irregularly. Many arrhythmias are harmless and don’t require treatment, but some cause severe symptoms or are signs of more serious health problems.
Also read: That Seemingly Innocent Heart Flutter That You're Feeling, Is It Serious?
Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy
If you have an arrhythmia, here are six do’s and don’ts for keeping your heart healthy.
DO monitor caffeine intake
If you love coffee or energy drinks, pay close attention to what—and how much—you put in your body.
“Different things trigger arrhythmias in different people, so there is no end-all-be-all of what you can and can’t drink,” explains Erica Zado, PA-C, FHRS, a physician assistant at Penn Medicine. “However, there are certain drinks that you need to be careful with.”
Erica encourages patients to monitor what happens when they consume drinks with a lot of caffeine, like coffee. “For some people, coffee doesn’t do anything. For others, just one cup can cause an arrhythmia to flare up,” she says.
“Unless you have an arrhythmia after one cup, you don’t need to give up coffee altogether. But I would recommend sticking to only one or two a day if you can.”
As for energy drinks? “Avoid them,” says Erica. While an eight-ounce cup of coffee has about 100 mgs of caffeine, some energy drinks can have up to 242 mgs per serving (and with some drinks, there’s more than one serving per container). Energy drinks have also been shown to increase blood pressure and cause arrhythmias.
DON’T go overboard on alcohol
Alcohol is similar to caffeine—some people with arrhythmias can tolerate it, while others cannot. Erica tells patients, “Limit your alcoholic drinks to one to two per night, and drink even less if your arrhythmia is caused by a weakened heart or previous heart attack.”
Erica notes that it’s especially important to monitor your alcohol intake if you have a certain kind of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation, or A-Fib. Alcohol is known to cause A-Fib, and recent studies have shown that both binge drinking and moderate drinking can raise your risk for atrial fibrillation.
DO stay active
Exercising is always good for your heart, and a heart rhythm problem doesn’t need to stop you.
However, you do need to be extra careful. “When you exercise, your body is pumped with adrenaline,” explains Erica. “Certain types of exercise really increase your adrenaline, and some arrhythmias get worse with too much adrenaline.”
While the type of exercise you can do depends on your arrhythmia, Erica says that the rule of thumb is to choose cardio over weightlifting. “Anything where you have to lift weight can stress your heart. Instead, try cardio or yoga. Many patients find that yoga isn’t just safe if you have an arrhythmia—it can actually help prevent more arrhythmias.”
The most important thing you can do is talk to your physician before starting an exercise program. Erica says, “We don’t want you to hurt yourself or put yourself at risk for bad arrhythmias, but we also don’t want you to stop exercising. Talk to your doctor to come up with a plan that’s safest for you.”
DO lose weight
“One of the most important things you can do is lose extra weight,” says Erica. Being overweight or obese puts you at a higher risk for developing an arrhythmia or other heart problems.
But there is one way you do not want to lose weight: diet pills or similar products promising rapid weight loss. They can cause arrhythmias or many other problems that can even be fatal.
DON’T skimp out on sleep
The right amount of sleep helps prevent arrhythmias by lowering your stress level or making it easier to lose weight. It also keeps you from feeling fatigued, which Erica notes can sometimes trigger an arrhythmia. Aim to get about seven to nine hours per night.
Getting enough sleep is even more important if you have sleep apnea—a disorder where your breathing is interrupted during sleep.
“Sleep apnea puts stress on your heart and weakens the heart muscle, leading to arrhythmias like A-Fib,” says Erica. “If you have sleep apnea, you need to see a specialist and get it treated. Even the best treatment with drugs or ablation is less likely to work completely if you don’t fix the sleep apnea, too.”
DON’T ignore your arrhythmia—even if it’s benign
Your physician might tell you that your arrhythmia is harmless and doesn’t need to be treated. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t ever have symptoms.
“Just having symptoms is reason alone to treat an arrhythmia,” says Erica. “Arrhythmias can be uncomfortable, and you don’t need to live like that.”
In addition to watching your diet, exercising and getting enough sleep, Erica recommends making several lifestyle changes to keep your arrhythmia in check:
- Don’t smoke.
- Talk to your physician before traveling somewhere at very high altitudes.
- Pay close to attention to what provokes your arrhythmia—and remember that it’s different for every person.
You can certainly live a happy, healthy life with an abnormal health rhythm. However, it's always a good idea to check with your doctor when you're experiencing new symptoms or discomfort.