By 2050, 12 million people will have the irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, treatment of which will cost into the tens of billions of dollars.
For some, symptoms are as minor as an occasional notice of the heartbeat in the chest (palpitations) while for others it can be far more interfering, with symptoms like an irregular or rapid heartbeat, palpitations, lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath or chest pain. Treatments can range from nothing to medications to control the heart rhythym (usually beta blockers, which will increase your risk of stroke and diabetes) or blood thinners to surgery to burn out the regions of the heart responsible for the irregular heartbeat.
If none of these options sound appealing to you, luckily there’s an easier answer. But, as a warning, I’m going to sound like a broken record. But before I go on to sounding like a broken record, let me explain something about atrial fibrillation and how it relates to the way your brain functions (which, having written the book on Migraines and Epilepsy, sort of makes me an expert on the topic).
The cells of the brain function very much like the cells that regulate your heartbeat. They are heavily dependent on high levels of energy (in the form of ATP) to NOT fire. Basically, a charge has to build up and build up until it is time for that cell to fire, whether it is to fire off a brain cell or the heart muscles.
Just like improving chronic migraine headaches or improving seizures in epilepsy, the key is to stop doing things to damage your mitochondria (the part of the cell that makes the needed ATP) and start doing things to improve the way your mitochondria function. Which brings us back to this particular article.
In it, researchers put people with atrial fibrillation through a series of lifestyle changes, many focused around weight loss, to see how this had an impact on atrial fibrillation. The lifestyle changes consisted of a very low calorie diet (800-1200 calories / day) using a complete meal replacement product (Prima Health Solutions, Kickstart) for 2 of the 3 daily meals for 2 months. Overall the lifestyle program focused on 6 simple tenants:
- Calorie maintenance 800-1200 calories/day
- Low glycemic index foods
- High mono and poly unsaturated fats based foods
- Low saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium based foods
- Alcohol reduction (less than or equal to 30g/week)
- Initially 3 x 20 minute sessions of low intensity exercise per week (usually walking), slowly adding in 1 – 2 moderate intensity session(s) per week (jogging, brisk walking, swimming, cross-trainer, rowing machine, cycling)
So what happened to the participants that followed the diet compared to controls that just received general lifestyle advice?
- Lost more weight (about 24 more pounds).
- Atrial fibrillation symptom burden scores were lower (11.8 versus 6 points lower).
- Atrial fibrillation symptom severity scores dropped lower (8.4 versus 1.7 points).
- Number of episodes dropped by 2.5 per week.
- Cumulative duration dropped per week (692-minute decline versus a 419-minute increase).
- As a bonus, there was a reduction in interventricular septal thickness (a sign of less stress on the heart).
Not too shabby of an outcome, especially when you look at the number of minutes per week; basically the group that made the changes had a pretty hefty 18 HOURS less of atrial fibrillation per week. With studies like these starting to accumulate, the idea of merely managing an irregular heartbeat with medications or a “wait and see” approach (notice that the control group had an increase of almost 4 hours per week over the 15 months of the trial) is a bad idea.
Lifestyle changes are a must for this type of irregular heartbeat. But, then again, I did warn you that I was going to sound like a broken record.