atrial fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation: What Works/What Doesn’t

Sam knew something wasn’t right when his morning walks left him exhausted and short of breath. Ann noticed it in the gym, when the pulse monitor on the exercise bike couldn’t register her erratic heart rate. Louise’s first episode occurred as she was rushing to catch a connecting flight and her heart began beating so wildly that she was sure she was having a heart attack. Karen never had any symptoms at all until she ended up in the hospital after a stroke. All these people—and millions more—have atrial fibrillation (AFib), a cardiac rhythm disorder caused by a glitch in the heart’s electrical system.

What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

The heart consists of four chambers: the smaller upper atria where blood returns to the heart and the large muscular ventricles that pump blood throughout the body. Heart rate and rhythm are controlled by the sinoatrial node in the right atrium, which fires electrical impulses that cause the atria to contract and move blood into the ventricles. These impulses then travel through the AV node to the ventricles, signaling them to beat regularly and rhythmically.

In AFib, this system is short-circuited. Rapid, unsynchronized electrical signals cause the atria to quiver or “fibrillate” and the ventricles to beat erratically, resulting in a rapid and irregular heartbeat, often accompanied by a racing or fluttering heart, breathlessness, fatigue, and/or lightheadedness.

In addition to making you feel lousy, AFib increases risk of stroke. When the atria fail to properly contract, blood pools and may form clots, which could travel to the brain, lodge in an artery, and cause a stroke. And because a constantly elevated heart rate overworks the cardiac muscle, risk of heart failure also rises.

Drugs and Interventions Are Overused in AFib

To reduce stroke risk, many patients are given prescription drugs that inhibit blood clotting. Prior to 2010, that meant Coumadin (warfarin), a medication that patients love to hate because it requires close monitoring and significantly increases risk of bleeding. Coumadin has since been joined by pricey “novel” anticoagulants such as Pradaxa and Xarelto. Although they’re advertised as breakthroughs, they’re actually quite similar in terms of bleeding risk and blood clot/stroke prevention.

For high-risk patients—over age 65, with hypertension, diabetes, heart failure, or a previous stroke—anticoagulants may be lifesavers. However, research suggests that a quarter of AFib patients taking them have a very low risk of stroke, and the drugs’ dangers outweigh potential benefits.

Cardiologists also prescribe beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers, and digoxin to slow the heart rate and antiarrhythmic drugs to control abnormal rhythms. I’m especially concerned about the latter, which include Cordarone (amiodarone), Tambocor, and Betapace. These are heavy-duty drugs that should be used only as a last resort, as adverse effects include life-threatening arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. Furthermore, antiarrhythmics aren’t very effective. In one study, 72 percent of patients had AFib recurrences.

For people with persistent atrial fibrillation, cardioversion is another option. This procedure normalizes rhythm with an electric shock that stops then restarts the heart’s electrical activity. It isn’t a cure, but it’s effective, at least temporarily, in 90 percent of patients—and a heck of a lot better than antiarrhythmic drugs.

Finally, there’s ablation, which involves snaking a catheter up a vein into the atrium and zapping areas that trigger abnormal electrical signals. When ablation is successful, it eliminates AFib and the need for anti-arrhythmic medication. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work 20-40 percent of the time, one in four patients requires repeat treatment, and there’s a six percent chance of major complications such as catheter-related damage and stroke.

Natural Treatments for Atrial Fibrillation

So this leaves us where we should have begun: identifying and treating the underlying causes and offering natural treatments for atrial fibrillation.

Obesity is an established risk factor—which partially explains rising rates of AFib in recent years. A recent study found that people who lost 10 percent of their body weight were six times more likely to be free of AFib during four years of follow-up than those without sustained weight loss.

Sleep apnea is another factor; researchers estimate that half of patients with AFib have this sleep disorder. Stroke, hypertension, diabetes, vascular disease, and heart failure are also closely associated, and getting a handle on these conditions reduces AFib risk and recurrence.

Lifestyle changes are a terrific natural treatment for atrial fibrillation, as increasing scientific evidence points to the significant role of inactivity, excessive alcohol, smoking, unmanaged stress, poor nutrition, and other modifiable factors in atrial fibrillation. Furthermore, studies show that moderate exercise, a good diet, and stress reduction improve AFib and the structure and function of the heart.

Targeted supplements are also excellent natural treatments for atrial fibrillation. In a recent study, patients who added coenzyme Q10 to their usual medications had a dramatic reduction in AFib episodes and improvements in heart function. Many low-risk patients do well on natural blood thinners such as omega-3s, vitamin E, garlic, and ginger, and other supplements, including magnesium, antioxidants, folic acid, and vitamin D, engender multiple aspects of cardiovascular health.

The Rhythm of Life

Atrial fibrillation can be scary, but it’s not life threatening if managed properly—and this can often be done with lifestyle changes and natural therapies. John Mandrola, MD, a cardiologist from Louisville, Kentucky, who specializes in rhythm disorders, explains the paradigm shift currently underway:

“We saw atrial fibrillation as a disease rather than seeing it as a result of other diseases. That explains why our treatments (drugs and ablation) have performed so poorly. … From now forward, when a patient with AFib sees a doctor who recommends rhythm drugs or ablation without first exploring how that person sleeps, eats, drinks, moves, and deals with stress, it will be a signal to get another opinion. Rushing to drugs or ablation will be as wrong as prescribing antibiotics for a viral infection.”

Recommendations for Atrial Fibrillation

Talk to your doctor about safer, natural treatments for atrial fibrillation. Do not stop medications on your own and be aware that anticoagulants are sometimes necessary.

To consult a physician at Whitaker Wellness for a second opinion and a personalized supplement, weight loss, and lifestyle change program, call 866-944-8253. You can also fill out this form for a consultation with one of our friendly and knowledgeable Patient Services Representatives who can tell you if you’re a good candidate for our natural treatments for atrial fibrillation.

To learn more about AFib, visit Dr. Mandrola’s informative blog at drjohhn.org.

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