How alcohol affects people with AFib
Can you still drink if you have atrial fibrillation?
Like it or not, alcohol is part of the fabric of American culture. Whether it’s a happy hour with coworkers, a date night bottle of wine, or a nightcap after a stressful day, a lot of people choose to enjoy a few drinks every now and then.
Unfortunately for people with heart arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation, even a moderate amount of alcohol can be damaging to their body. Numerous studies have shown that regular alcohol consumption can cause someone to develop atrial fibrillation or make an existing condition much more serious.
If you have AFib or are worried you are at risk for developing it, the information below can help you plan how to handle your alcohol consumption.
What alcohol does to the heart
It helps to first understand how alcohol affects your heart. We're educated quite a bit about the effects of alcohol on the liver and brain, but the cardiovascular system is often overlooked in this discussion. You may have heard that a small amount of alcohol — such as a glass of red wine — can actually be good for the heart. This is true because certain alcohols promote your body's production of HDLs (high-density lipoproteins) which take cholesterol out of your arteries and lower your risk for coronary heart disease. However, as alcohol intake increases, so do the negative effects. For people with AFib, the increased risk of a major cardiac event simply isn't worth it.
While we tend to think of heart disease slowly developing over years of poor health choices, alcohol can cause the development of atrial fibrillation in perfectly healthy people in a short amount of time. The most common instance of this is known as Holiday Heart Syndrome, due to the sudden influx of people coming into emergency rooms after the holidays. If someone is having a couple of drinks at an office party, house party, and holiday dinner, that adds up quickly. The sudden increase in alcohol consumption can result in an AFib attack that feels a lot like a full cardiac arrest. The good news is this kind of AFib usually goes away on its own.
Alcohol can make AFib worse
Alcohol can also cause a mild case of AFib to develop into a more severe one. Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation is defined as occasional, sporadic AFib episodes. In some cases people can have a single AFib attack and then never experience it again. However, regular intake of alcohol can cause paroxysmal atrial fibrillation to develop into persistent AFib, which is an episode that lasts longer than 7 days. Fortunately this kind of AFib is still treatable.
If nothing is done to address the issue, including not reducing the amount of alcohol that is being consumed, the AFib can progress to chronic AFib, which is the most severe kind. At this stage, the condition is most likely irreversible and the person will have to manage it for the rest of their life.
Why does alcohol negatively affect the heart?
While there is no clear consensus on how alcohol is specifically interacting with the body to damage the heart, there is a lot of evidence regarding the effects. Alcohol weakens the heart muscle itself, which means it has to work harder to pump blood to the rest of your body, increasing blood pressure. A weakened heart is also more susceptible to develop arrhythmias like AFib.
Another factor has to do with a specific part of your body: the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs through your neck and is responsible for transmitting a huge amount of information. Unfortunately, it also seems to be susceptible to alcohol, and a spike in vagal nerve response can cause an AFib attack.
Finally, there are the conditions surrounding excessive alcohol consumption to consider. When you drink heavily, you become dehydrated because alcohol is a diuretic. This is one of the root causes of a hangover as well. Dehydration is a common cause for AFib episodes, especially when it comes in conjunction with other lifestyle factors of heavy drinking like loss of sleep quality and poor diet.
The Bottom Line: How to drink (or not) if you have AFib
Excessive drinking or binge drinking will always be bad for you. There are zero health benefits and a huge list of harmful things it does to the body. For healthy people, moderate drinking will most likely not result in any negative health effects. The U.S. Department of Health defined moderate drinking as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, although experts are currently considering lowering that recommendation to just one drink per day for men.
For those with AFib, it's best to stick to the occasional drink, or none at all if you can. A study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that those who abstained from drinking dramatically reduced their risk of suffering an AFib attack. If you are a regular drinker, making a dramatic lifestyle change can be difficult, but for those with AFib the benefits are very real.
Not sure if you're at risk or even have AFib? Get screened!
AFib can be asymptomatic until it progresses to a more severe stage. Many people have AFib and don't even realize it.
If you'd like to know where your health stands with regard to heart arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation. Life Line Screening offers a simple, non-invasive test and lab-accurate results. Using an EKG monitor, a trained technician will read your heart signal for about 15 minutes and inform you of any irregularities during the screening.
Scheduling an appointment is easy, with convenient locations all across the United States. Click below to find the Life Line Screening location closest to you.
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This article has been reviewed by the Life Line Screening clinical team. You can learn more about this team of experts HERE.