Atrial fibrillation – heart symptoms you shouldn’t ignore

Sometimes you may experience heart-fluttering sensations when taking part in sports, or when experiencing an exciting new situation. Often, these feelings are brushed off as fleeting emotions or minor incidents. Yet there are times when these irregular heartbeats hint at something more profound, something worth paying attention to. For around 10 million people in Europe, that erratic heartbeat isn’t a rush of feelings; it’s a condition known as atrial fibrillation (AF).1 With more than one in three people likely to develop AF in our lifetime, it is important that people know the signs and symptoms of AF to empower them to proactively manage it.2

Atrial fibrillation and its symptoms

AF occurs when the electrical impulses in the atria (upper chambers of the heart) fire more chaotically than usual, causing them to twitch in an irregular pattern which disrupts the heart’s normal rhythm. Although AF itself is not life threatening, it is still a serious condition as the irregular rhythm of contractions disrupts the normal flow of blood through the heart, which can lead to the formation of blood clots.3 If one of these blood clots travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke.3

AF can emerge subtly over time or develop suddenly. It can come and go unpredictably, or it may persist as a constant condition.3 When symptoms of AF present, they can include palpitations, chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizziness.3 However, for 15–30% of individuals with AF there are no symptoms present, meaning a significant portion of those with AF could be completely unaware that they have the condition.4 This is one of the reasons why regular check-ups and monitoring is essential to maintain strong heart health.

Preventing and managing atrial fibrillation

Damage to the heart is thought to be the most common cause of AF, but the direct cause is not fully understood.3 Much like various other medical conditions, the risk of AF naturally increases with age, and individuals with other pre-existing cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and cardiomyopathy are at greater risk of developing the condition.5, 6 Despite particular risk factors such as ageing being unavoidable, there are many lifestyle changes that can help to reduce the risk of developing AF. With AF being a manageable but often life-long condition, simple lifestyle changes can be made to reduce the impact of the potential complications, such as the formation of blood clots which can cause a stroke:7

  1. 1. Maintaining a healthy diet – adopting a heart healthy diet is a powerful way to help prevent AF or manage and minimise its symptoms following a diagnosis. Prioritising a diet packed with nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, and minimising the consumption of saturated fats and sodium such as butter, cheese, and fatty cuts of meat, can help to reduce chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels – all of which are factors associated with a greater risk of developing AF.8, 9, 10, 11 Learn more here.
  2. Reducing stress – although stress does not directly cause AF, the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which can influence AF episodes and increase their frequency, length, and severity.12, 13 Engaging in relaxing activities such as light exercise or yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation, can help you deal with stress and potentially reduce the impact it may have on AF.13 Learn more about the links between stress and cardiovascular disease, here.
  3. Engaging in physical activity – partaking in regular physical activity including aerobic activities (such as walking, jogging, or swimming), or resistance training (strength work) can help to improve cardiac output (how well the heart pumps) which can reduce strain on the heart and decrease the risk of rhythm abnormalities.14, 15 Physical activity is also a natural stress reliever, and by engaging in regular exercise you may reduce levels of stress hormones and mitigate the impact of chronic stress on the heart – a known trigger for AF episodes.16Learn more here.

By understanding the symptoms, risk factors, and lifestyle choices associated with AF, you can take steps to adopt heart-healthy habits to reduce your risk of developing AF, or effectively manage symptoms post-diagnosis.

At Daiichi Sankyo Europe, we care for every heartbeat. We’re on a mission to empower individuals to reclaim control over their heart health. We are raising awareness of holistic approaches to protect heart health across Europe and recently published a report exploring potential holistic avenues to improve cardiovascular care, which you can read, here.

References
[1]
European Heart Network. Atrial Fibrillation and Cardiovascular Diseases – a European Heart Network paper.
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[2]
Hindrinks G, et al. 2020 ESC Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of atrial fibrillation developed in collaboration with the European Association for Cardio-Thoracic Surgery (EACTS): The Task Force for the diagnosis and management of atrial fibrillation of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Developed with the special contribution of the European Heart Rhythm
[3]
British Heart Foundation. Atrial fibrillation (AF): causes, symptoms and treatments.
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European Medical Journal. A Review of the Burden of Atrial Fibrillation: Understanding the Impact of the New Millennium Epidemic across Europe.
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CDC. Atrial Fibrillation.
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NHS. Causes Atrial fibrillation.
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Heart Foundation. Managing your atrial fibrillation.
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[8]
Mayo Clinic. Should I make changes to my diet if I’ve been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation?
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Last Accessed November 2023.
[11]
Roh, E. et al. Total cholesterol variability and risk of atrial fibrillation: A nationwide population-based cohort study. PLoS One. 2019.
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[12]
Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the stress response.
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[13]
Heart Rhythm Consultants. (2023) Can Stress Cause AFib? The Link Between Stress and Atrial Fibrillation.
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[14]
Cleveland Clinic. Cardiac Output.
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[15]
Shamloo, S.A., et al. (2018) Exercise and Atrial Fibrillation: Some Good News and Some Bad News. Galen Med J.
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Last Accessed November 2023.