Cause Of Heart Palpitations May Not Be What You Think
I occasionally see patients complaining of a fluttering heart, a sense of fullness in the chest, a pounding heart or skipped heartbeats. These sensations, also called heart palpitations, occur when the electrical system in the heart malfunctions. This malfunction disrupts the natural rhythm of the heart (arrhythmia). Usually, irregular beats are harmless. As a matter of fact, most people at some time in their lives, have occasional irregular heartbeats and never know it. The heart goes right back into rhythm and you don’t feel a thing.
But some people do feel these irregularities; their daily activities may even be disrupted. And, palpitations could signal an underlying heart disease. So if you have them, it’s important to be evaluated, especially if your palpitations are prolonged and recurrent or accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, sweating or dizziness. But many times, the cause is less serious.
I remember one middle-aged patient who was sure his palpitations signaled heart failure. I referred him to a cardiologist for a stress test and an ultrasound of his heart. Both tests revealed good heart function. I also ordered thorough blood tests, which showed no problems. Back in my office, I evaluated his daily activities, food and drink. Right away, I suspected that his high consumption of caffeine might be causing his problem, and he followed my suggestion to eliminate it from his diet. Sure enough, after a week or so, his palpitations disappeared.
Causes and Remedies
When your doctor rules out heart disease, you’ll be relieved, of course. But since there are many causes of palpitations, it might take patience to discover what triggers your symptoms. The good news is that, in many cases, you can find remedies.
Nutritional deficiencies. Electrolytes in your body–particularly potassium, calcium, and magnesium–keep the electrical signals in your heart firing regularly. An imbalance can cause irregular beats and simple supplementation may correct them.
Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. Too much stimulation from ingested chemicals may affect your heart. If you have recurring palpitations, you may find that reducing or perhaps eliminating one or more of these stimulants will solve the problem.
Medications. Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs can cause heart palpitations, particularly cold medications which contain pseudoephedrine. It’s a good idea for anyone to avoid these. Opt for natural and homeopathic remedies when you have a cold.
Stress. If you do not handle stress well, palpitations may be your body’s way of responding. Identify your stressors and learn how to deal with them. Simplify your life, try yoga or meditation, listen to music, practice deep breathing. Even adding moderate exercise to your routine can relieve stress. Do what works for you.
Food allergies or sensitivities. Just because you’ve never had allergies, don’t assume that food could not be the culprit. Even adults can develop food allergies for the first time or develop new food allergies. An estimated 9 million adults in the US have them. If you suspect food allergy, try keeping a food journal, noting when palpitations occur. You might also need to follow an elimination diet, which will help you to pinpoint the offending foods.
Food additives and preservatives. These are substances which you should avoid anyway. But if you’re particularly sensitive to them, they might be causing your symptoms. Watch out particularly for artificial sweeteners.
Anemia and hyperthyroidism may cause palpitations. Both of these conditions require particular treatment and, if suspected, can be confirmed with blood tests.
When an obvious diagnosis cannot be made, some doctors prescribe drugs to control heart palpitations. Beta-blockers help the heart slow down. Calcium channel blockers relax blood vessels. However, these drugs often bring with them unpleasant side effects, including sexual dysfunction and sluggishness. It makes sense to try natural supplements first.
When supplementing with minerals, calcium and magnesium seem especially important. Calcium supports the cardiac muscle, and magnesium can regulate some types of arrhythmia.
An amino acid called taurine keeps your heart from losing potassium and helps it use calcium and magnesium more effectively. A taurine supplement can regulate heartbeats by actually correcting the arrhythmia. It should be taken along with vitamins B6 and C to ensure proper absorption.
When the heart beats too fast, a Chinese herb called Cordyceps, may help slow the rate. It also increases the blood supply to the heart and may lower blood pressure.
A Heart-Healthy Diet
With any heart-related issue, I recommend a general heart-healthy diet. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, don’t forget beans and legumes, fish, dark leafy greens (such as spinach and arugula), whole grains, nuts, spices, herbs, wheat germ and flax meal. And specifically for palpitations, eat avocados, a great source of potassium, which helps to regulate heart rhythm.
If you are experiencing heart palpitations, don’t assume the worst. Do get evaluated for heart disease. But don’t panic! Remember that, in many cases, the problem is less serious and can be solved through natural methods.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Institute For Healthy Aging