Alcohol identified as the sole trigger for more episodes of arterial fibrillation

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — AFib, short for arterial fibrillation, is the most common form of an irregular heartbeat. Individuals diagnosed with AFib often experience an irregular heartbeat accompanied by shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain. Even worse, AFib puts patients at a significantly higher risk of further cardiac episodes such as a heart attack or stroke. Now, new research is pointing the scientific finger solely at alcohol as a major trigger when it comes to AFib episodes.

Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco tested a number of factors thought to bring on bouts of AFib, including lack of sleep, alcohol, caffeine, overall diet, and sleeping on your left side (where the heart sits). Ultimately, though, the study finds alcohol is the only factor with a consistent link to more AFib episodes.

Most doctors and AFib patients believe drinking lots of coffee or staying up all night will lead to more bouts of heart arrhythmia, so these findings are quite notable. Interestingly, even though the vast majority of study participants expected factors like sleep and diet to influence their condition, only those placed in the intervention self-monitoring group experienced less arrhythmia than the other participants placed in a comparison group that was not actively self-monitoring.

“This suggests that those personalized assessments revealed actionable results,” says lead study author Gregory Marcus, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at UCSF, in a university release. “Although caffeine was the most commonly selected trigger for testing, we found no evidence of a near-term relationship between caffeine consumption and atrial fibrillation. In contrast, alcohol consumption most consistently exhibited heightened risks of atrial fibrillation.”

Don’t blame coffee, blame booze for heart trouble

Back in 2014, researchers from UCSF held a meeting with various AFib patients and asked what type of research they would like to see conducted on their condition. The overwhelming top answer was more work identifying AFib triggers. These responses led to the creation of the I-STOP-AFib study, which encompassed 450 AFib patients.

Study subjects used a mobile electrocardiogram recording device in combination with a mobile phone app to keep track of any potential triggers and how engaging in those activities influenced their condition. The full list of potential triggers included eating a large meal, enjoying a cold drink, eating a specific diet, exercise, drinking alcohol, drinking caffeine, lack of sleep, and sleeping on the left side.

Across the board, most participants cited caffeine as the number one factor they expected to result in an AFib episode. However, the team did not find any link between AFib and caffeine consumption at all. Moreover, alcohol was the sole factor that always resulted in significantly more self-reported bouts of AFib.

“This completely remote, siteless, mobile-app based study will hopefully pave the way for many investigators and patients to conduct similar personalized “n-of-1” experiments that can provide clinically relevant information specific to the individual,” Dr. Marcus concludes.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Cardiology.


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