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Holistic help for atrial fibrillation

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Holistic help for atrial fibrillation

My mother-in-law occasionally suffers from a racing heartbeat and her doctor says she has atrial fibrillation. She’s keen to learn about any natural treatments that may help reduce her episodes. Can you help?

S.S., via email

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is when the heart beats irregularly or faster than normal. It’s the most common form of abnormal heart rhythm (cardiac arrhythmia), affecting some 33 million people worldwide.1 As well as causing symptoms like palpitations, shortness of breath and chest pain, AF is associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure and dementia,2 so it’s certainly wise to do something about it.

Conventional treatment of AF varies depending on factors such as age, severity of symptoms and whether there’s an underlying cause. Usually, a combination of anti-arrhythmic and anticoagulant drugs are prescribed, but these can come with serious side-effects. Amiodarone, for example, the most widely used drug for arrhythmia, may cause thyroid problems, pulmonary fibrosis and liver damage.3

The best approach for your mother-in-law is to consult with an experienced functional medicine practitioner who can try to work out if there’s a correctable cause, such as high blood pressure, an overactive thyroid or a food allergy, and then recommend a personalized treatment plan. And she should definitely not discontinue any medication without medical supervision.

But here are some general, evidence-based guidelines on what can help with AF.

Eat a Mediterranean diet

Widely considered the best diet for preventing heart disease, the Mediterranean diet—one that’s high in whole grains, olive oil, fatty fish, fruits and vegetables—appears to be beneficial for AF, as does eating lots of antioxidant-rich foods.4 Aim to eat a rainbow of brightly colored fruit and vegetables—such as blueberries, raspberries, bell peppers, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, beet and red cabbage—as these tend to be packed with
heart-healthy antioxidants.

Try Emotional Freedom Technique

Negative emotions such as sadness, anger, stress, impatience and anxiety have been found to trigger symptoms of AF, while feeling happy appears to be protective.5 The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or ‘tapping’ is one proven way to boost mental wellbeing. One study reported reductions in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as increased ratings of happiness after participants took part in a four-day EFT workshop.6

To find out more about EFT and how to access free tapping meditations, visit


Several supplements may be useful for AF, especially if you are lacking in specific nutrients. As AF is a serious condition, it’s crucial you consult with an experienced medical practitioner, who can arrange testing for nutritional deficiencies and advise on appropriate dosages and potential drug interactions before taking supplements. But here are the most useful ones for AF, according to the evidence so far.

Coenzyme Q10. Famous for its heart-healthy effects, coenzyme Q10 has been found to reduce AF in patients with heart failure taking it alongside their usual medication.7

Magnesium. A deficiency in this essential mineral has been linked to arrhythmias,8 and taking magnesium supplements reduced the incidence of certain types of arrhythmia in people with congestive heart failure.9

Potassium. Low potassium levels have been linked to abnormal heart rhythm.8 In patients with high blood pressure taking diuretics (water pills), potassium supplements reduced arrhythmias after two months.10

Fish oil. Some evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil have an antiarrhythmic effect and may even prevent potentially fatal arrhythmias in high-risk patients.11

Vitamin C. Taking vitamin C alongside beta-blockers before and after heart surgery significantly reduced the incidence of AF.12

N-acetylcysteine (NAC). This is another nutrient found to reduce AF after surgery when taken in conjunction with standard drug therapy.13

Look at your lifestyle

Lifestyle appears to play an important role in AF. Here are some steps you can take to help your heart.

Limit alcohol. Even just once small drink a day significantly boosts your risk of AF.14
Don’t smoke. Smokers have double the risk of AF compared to nonsmokers.15
Lose weight. If you’re overweight, shedding the pounds can reduce or even reverse AF.16
Don’t work long hours.  Working more than 55 hours a week has been linked to AF, so make sure you make enough time for rest and relaxation.17
Get enough sleep. Poor sleep can up your risk of AF by a third.18  Check out WDDTY’s March 2020 issue for tips on getting a better night’s sleep.

Have a go at HIiT

Physical activity is vital for a healthy heart. In one trial, aerobic interval training, a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), significantly reduced AF symptoms and severity and improved quality of life and general health and vitality. The participants engaged in four four-minute bouts of high-intensity aerobic exercise such as walking, running or cycling, reaching 85 to 95 percent of their peak heart rate, alternating with three minutes of active recovery, three times a week.20

Consider traditional Chinese medicine

Acupuncture has proved to be nearly 20 percent more effective at controlling AF than the antiarrhythmic drug amiodarone, and it’s free of the nasty side-effects.23 And in patients who’ve had electrical cardioversion—a conventional therapy in which low-energy shocks are used to get the heart’s rhythm back to normal—acupuncture can prevent the abnormal rhythms from coming back.24

The Chinese herbal extract wenxin keli has also been successfully used to treat AF, although side-effects can include nausea and stomach upset.25

To find a traditional Chinese medical practitioner near you, visit or

Check your meds

Certain drugs have been linked to AF, including corticosteroids, bisphosphonates (osteoporosis drugs) and heart drugs such as adenosine, dobutamine and milrinone.26 Check with your doctor about the side-effects of any medications you’re taking and whether there are suitable alternatives, if needed.

Eat chocolate

Some evidence suggests that eating chocolate could cut your risk of AF. A study of more than 55,000 people in Denmark found that those eating one to three servings of chocolate a month (one serving was equal to one ounce) had a 10 percent lower risk of heart flutters compared to those eating it less than once a month. Those eating two to six servings a week had a 20 percent lower risk.19

Go for dark chocolate, which has a higher antioxidant content and has previously been associated with a host of heart-protective effects.

Try qigong 

If HIIT is a struggle, this ancient mind-body technique could help. A four-month qigong training program improved AF patients’ capacity to exercise in one study.21 Qigong is also a proven way to reduce stress and anxiety,22 which can be triggers for AF.

Take up yoga

Practicing yoga twice a week for three months can reduce AF episodes as well as feelings of depression
and anxiety.




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