Heart health can be a heavy topic. Our hearts pump blood through our entire body and keep all of our organs working correctly. Some people are born with heart defects or are genetically predisposed to heart conditions. Other people develop heart conditions from their lifestyle choices and health behaviors.
Alcohol has been associated with almost any disease you can think of. Alcohol can increase your risk of a disease (like liver disease) or make a disease worse (like depression). As for heart health, alcohol often does both. A good example of a heart condition effected by alcohol is atrial fibrillation, or AFib.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm problem. The condition puts you at risk of stroke and other problems as well as death. Another term for atrial fibrillation is "A-fib."
People diagnosed with AFib experience symptoms episodically. During an AFib episode, a person feels chest tightness, an increased or abnormal heart rate, dizziness, and trouble breathing. As you can imagine, these episodes are scary. To understand what triggers an episode, researchers asked 1295 people with symptomatic AFib about their experience.
Source: Patient-reported triggers of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation
Based on the sample's responses, the majority of people with AFib had known triggers. The most common triggers were alcohol, caffeine, exercise, and lack of sleep.
Alcohol consumption and risk of AFib
To explore this relationship, researchers identified 79,019 participants from multiple medical databases. They followed participants for 12 years, and recorded alcohol consumption and incidence of AFib. At the end of the study, there were 7,245 cases of Fib.
Source: Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Atrial Fibrillation: A Prospective Study and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis
Based on the results, drinking 15 or more alcoholic beverages a week was associated with at least a 14% increased risk of developing AFib. They also found that the more alcohol participants drank, the greater their risk of AFib. These findings are consistent with previous studies. In fact, other studies have found an even greater risk of AFib in participants drinking as little as one alcoholic beverage a day.
Abstaining from alcohol to reduce AFib symptoms
Researchers wanted to see if taking away alcohol could improve the symptomatic episodes of patients diagnosed with AFib. They recruited 140 patients from six hospitals in Australia who reported consuming 10 or more drinks per week. Half of the sample were instructed to abstain from alcohol and the other half continued their usual drinking habits. Over six months, participants recorded their alcohol intake and AFib symptoms.
Source: Alcohol Abstinence in Drinkers with Atrial Fibrillation
Participants who abstained from alcohol were less likely to experience AFib episodes and less likely to be admitted to the hospital for an AFib-related issue. Also, the abstinence group had a longer period before recurrence of AFib than those who drank normally.
Why is this important?
These studies tell us that alcohol is associated with an increased risk of AFib and that reducing alcohol intake can be beneficial for individuals who already have a diagnosis.
Source: Worldwide Epidemiology of Atrial Fibrillation
Significantly more men and women are being diagnosed with AFib today than 30 years ago. Not only are the number of cases increasing, but so are deaths. It is important to understand the risk factors of AFib to prevent and treat the growing burden on the world’s population.