Atrial Fibrillation: Natural Treatments, Remedies, and Tips

The heart’s upper chambers normally beat in a regular, coordinated rhythm with the heart’s lower chambers. In atrial fibrillation, the heart’s upper chambers can quiver out of rhythm.

The result is an irregular heart rhythm that can cause symptoms, such as shortness of breath, weakness, and heart palpitations. The condition can also lead to blood clots developing in the upper chambers, which can cause a stroke.

Atrial fibrillation (A-fib) treatments can vary based on the symptoms that people experience. While it’s important for people to follow a doctor’s advice related to A-fib treatments, they might also choose to supplement medical treatments with natural ones.

Natural treatments

Acupuncture
Acupuncture may help control the heart rate of people with A-fib.

Although natural treatments are often not widely studied, there are several treatments and activities that may help to reduce the symptoms and effects of A-fib. Some of these treatments may include the following:

Acupuncture

Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine approach, may help those with A-fib control their heart rates, according to a study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Acupuncture involves applying small needles to specific points on the body to promote energy flow. The acupuncture point is linked with controlling heart rhythm problems, but more research is still needed.

Yoga

Yoga is the practice of deep breathing, meditation, and body postures. Regular yoga practice for 1 hour, 3 days a week has been shown to reduce the amount of A-fib episodes, according to one study.

While the exact way that yoga reduces the incidence of A-fib isn’t known, researchers suggest that yoga could reduce stress and inflammation that damages the heart as well as reduce a person’s resting heart rate.

Herbs and supplements

One of the natural herbs reported to reduce A-fib and its symptoms are the Chinese herb extract Wenxin Keli (WXKL).

In a review of current studies regarding WXKL and its proposed effects, the authors found that taking the herb could have the following effects:

  • reduce changes to the heart that can occur as a result of A-fib
  • improve the maintenance of regular rhythm
  • have similar benefits as the beta-blocker sotalol in maintaining regular heart rhythms
  • reduce symptoms associated with A-fib, such as chest tightness, palpitations, and difficulty sleeping

However, the researchers noted that there are not a significant amount of studies or recommendations regarding a dosage for WXKL.

Another study studied the effects of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) herbs compared with prescription medications in treating A-fib.

traditional chinese medicine herbs
Traditional Chinese medicine herbs may help to treat females that are younger than 65 who have A-fib. However, research on the use of TCM herbs is inconclusive.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers made the following conclusions:

  • The TCM users had a reduced risk for stroke (1.93 percent) compared with non-TCM users (12.59 percent).
  • TCM users who were female or younger than 65 experienced the greatest stroke reduction benefits.
  • Those older than age 65 did not experience a significantly reduced stroke risk.

However, it’s important to note that one Chinese herb called Dan Shen can interact harmfully with warfarin, a blood thinner that doctors often prescribe to people with A-fib.

The researchers noted that there were several limitations to the study. For example, they did not track any of the participants’ lifestyle factors that could have affected their risk. The participants could also have been using other herbal medicines that the researchers weren’t aware of.

Other herbs and supplements that may help treat Afib, according to the Journal of Thoracic Diseases, include:

  • barberry (berberis)
  • cinchona
  • hawthorn
  • motherwort
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • shensongyangxin

Substances to avoid

Lifestyle habits and eating certain foods and drinks can potentially trigger episodes of A-fib. One such habit is smoking. Other examples include:

  • Drinking alcohol excessively: no more than 1 to 2 alcoholic drinks for a man each day and no more than 1 drink per day for women. People older than age 65 should have no more than 1 alcoholic drink per day. Moderate to heavy alcohol drinkers were 1.35 times more likely to have A-fib than non-drinkers.
  • Consuming excess amounts of caffeine. About 400 milligrams of caffeine is a safe upper limit for adults on a daily basis. This is roughly the same as four brewed cups of coffee.
  • Taking cough and cold medicines that contain stimulants, such as dextromethorphan or promethazine-codeine cough syrup.
  • Eating more than four servings of “dark” fish per week. According to one study, eating more than 4 servings of dark fish, such as salmon, swordfish, bluefish, mackerel, and sardines can actually increase the risk for A-fib.

Some people are more sensitive to medications and additives than others. If a person notices that eating a certain food or drink increases the incidence of irregular heart rhythms, they should talk to their doctor.

Lifestyle tips for living with A-fib

Many people with A-fib have a condition called sleep apnea. The most common form is obstructive sleep apnea, which causes a person to stop breathing for brief periods while they are asleep.

Sleep apnea can weaken the heart because the heart has to start working harder to make up for the lost oxygen when a person stops breathing.

Symptoms that suggest a person could be experiencing sleep apnea include:

  • being told they snore
  • waking themselves up at night with snoring or irregular breathing
  • having excessive daytime sleepiness

Anyone with these symptoms should see their doctor or a sleep medicine specialist.

A healthful lifestyle overall tends to promote heart health. As a result, a person may experience a reduced incidence of A-fib or lessen the risk of their symptoms getting worse.

Examples of healthful habits to follow include:

  • eating a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • exercising regularly
  • managing high blood pressure through both medications and natural treatments, if desired
  • avoiding excess intakes of alcohol and caffeine
  • managing long-term conditions that could contribute to or worsen A-fib

Long-term conditions that could contribute to A-fib include high blood pressure, sleep apnea, thyroid disease, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.

According to the American Heart Association, a person with A-fib is five times more likely to have a stroke than someone who does not have a history of heart disease. By working to prevent cardiac complications, a person can live a healthier life with A-fib.

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Sugar and Heart Disease: The Sour Side of Industry-Funded Research

While there is a general agreement that sugar intake is bad for heart health, this was not always the case. In the 1960s, when deaths from heart disease in the United States reached a peak, researchers were divided on the primary dietary contributors to the condition: sugar or fat? For years, studies blamed the latter, but recent research suggests the sugar industry may have played a pivotal role in which way the finger was pointing.
[Sugar in the shape of a heart]
Researchers have uncovered a 50-year-old heart disease study that was funded by the sugar industry to shift the blame from sugar to fat.

Earlier this month, dentist-turned-researcher Dr. Christin Kearns, of the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF), and colleagues reignited the debate over the influence the food industry has over scientific research.

In JAMA Internal Medicine, the team published a report revealing the discovery of a study published in the 1960s that received funding from the Sugar Association – formerly the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF).

The problem? The SRF funding was not disclosed – mandatory conflict of interest disclosure was not introduced until the 1980s – and there is evidence that the researchers of the 50-year-old study were paid to shift the focus away from the harms sugar intake poses for heart health.

The study in question was published in The New England Journal of Medicine on July 27, 1967.

Conducted by three former nutritionists at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA – Dr. Frederick Stare, Dr. Mark Hegsted, and Dr. Robert B. McGandy, who are now deceased – the research claimed that consumption of dietary fats, rather than sugar, was the primary cause of coronary heart disease (CHD).

The landing of ‘Project 226’

In their report, Dr. Kearns and colleagues reveal the discovery of documents in public archives that show Drs. Stare and Hegsted were paid $6,500 – the equivalent of almost $50,000 today – by the SRF to detract attention away from previous studies linking sugar to CHD.

According to the UCSF researchers, the documents show that in 1964, John Hickson – then president of the SRF – penned a memo suggesting the SRF “embark on a major program” in order to redress “negative attitudes towards sugar,” and one way he proposed doing so was to fund research to “refute our detractors.”

One year later, Hickson commissioned Dr. Hegsted and colleagues to conduct “Project 226” – described by Hickson as “a review article of the several papers which find some special metabolic peril in sucrose.”

Hickson provided Dr. Hegsted with a number of papers, and according to Dr. Kearns and team, the Harvard researchers “heavily criticized” studies that identified a link between sucrose – or table sugar – and coronary heart disease, while disregarding the limitations of studies that associated fat with the condition.

The study’s conclusion? That lowering intake of fat is the only way to keep cholesterol levels low and prevent CHD. This, therefore, would suggest to the general population and policymakers that a high-sugar diet does not play a major role in CHD.

Commenting on their discovery, Dr. Kearns and co-authors say:

“Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD.”

Speaking to Medical News Today, Dr. Kearns said she was “surprised to learn the SRF began funding heart disease research as early as 1965 – and that their tactics to shift the focus off of sucrose were so sophisticated.”

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, who wrote an editorial accompanying Dr. Kearns’ report, told MNT she was “shocked” by the discovery.

“Everyone knew that Fred Stare collected scads of money from food and drug companies and sounded like he worked for the food industry, but Mark Hegsted was another matter,” she said. “I knew him as a scientist committed to finding effective dietary approaches to chronic disease and would never have imagined him working so closely with the sugar industry.”

The continued influence of one biased study

The new revelation demonstrates how the sugar industry skewed the results of one study almost 50 years ago, but how is this relevant today?

That single study is likely to have influenced our diets ever since; the results were used in SRF marketing, and they even helped inform recommendations relating to diet and heart disease, many of which remain.

[A doctor holding a heart]
The sugar industry-funded study is likely to have influenced what we have eaten for decades.

Stanton Glantz, the co-author of the UCSF research, explains that the industry-funded study was a major review published in an influential journal, so it “helped shift the emphasis of the discussion away from sugar and onto fat.”

“By doing that, it delayed the development of a scientific consensus on the sugar-heart disease for decades,” he adds.

Report co-author Laura Schmidt, of UCSF, notes that saturated fat has been perceived as the main culprit in heart disease for years, but increasingly, light is being shed on the role of sugar.

A study published in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases earlier this year, for example, presented evidence that added sugar intake might be an even greater contributor to cardiovascular disease than saturated fat.

“After a thorough analysis of the evidence it seems appropriate to recommend dietary guidelines shift focus away from recommendations to reduce saturated fat and towards recommendations to avoid added sugars,” said Dr. James J. DiNicolantonio, of Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute and co-author of the study.

While evidence of sugar’s major role in heart disease is mounting, Schmidt notes that “health policy documents are still inconsistent inciting heart disease risk as a health consequence of added sugars consumption.”

Industry-funded studies remain a problem

Today, researchers are required to disclose any conflicts of interest they may have, including any industry relationships and funding they have received – a regulation that was not in place in the 1960s, and a fact that The Sugar Association uses in their defense in response to the UCSF discovery.

“We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities, however, when the studies in question were published, funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today,” the organization comments.

[Money wrapped in a stethoscope]
In some cases, such as with drug development, industry-funded research is beneficial.

But has the introduction of transparency standards in the 1980s reduced how much influence industries have over scientific research? It seems not.

Take the tobacco industry, for example. In a study published in the journal Circulation in 2007, Glantz and colleagues combed through millions of tobacco industry documents, many of which revealed how the tobacco industry-funded studies in the 1990s to play down the harms of secondhand smoke exposure, in an attempt to stave off smoke-free laws.

In relation to the food industry, just last year, the New York Times revealed that Coca-Cola was funding the development of a nonprofit organization called Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN).

While GEBN claimed its aim was to conduct research into the causes of obesity, the organization widely claimed that it is a lack of exercise, rather than an unhealthy diet, that causes weight gain.

“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is that they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much, blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause,” Steven N. Blair, a member GEBN’s executive committee said in a promotional video.

“Those of us interested in science, public health, medicine, we have to learn how to get the right information out there.”

On this occasion, it seems the proposal that an unhealthy diet is not a cause of obesity – a claim backed by a soft drink giant – was shunned by healthcare professionals and the general public alike; in November 2015, GEBN ceased operation.

Still, industry-funded research continues – but why? Can it ever be beneficial?

Industry-funded research should be interpreted with caution

One area of research that does benefit from industry funding is drug development.

While grants from government organizations and charities enable some drug trials to go ahead, in the U.S., the bulk of funding comes from the pharmaceutical industry, with more than $30 billion a year spent on drug development.

Without pharmaceutical industry funding, many of the drugs we use today for common illnesses may not have been discovered. But that is not to say such funding isn’t problematic; it can result in bias, with numerous studies showing that trials funded by the pharmaceutical industry are more likely to support the interest of the sponsor.

And according to Nestle, this type of bias is very much present in research funded by the food industry.

“In my casual year-long collection of 168 industry-funded studies, I found 12 with results that did not favor the sponsor’s interest. Systematic studies come out with slightly higher percentages of unfavorable studies,” Nestle told MNT.

“The science is usually done pretty well; it’s the research question and the interpretation that seem most influenced. Research shows that investigators who take industry funding are unaware of the influence and bias their science inadvertently. This makes the problem exceptionally difficult to deal with.”

Marion Nestle

Is there anything that can be done to reduce the effects of bias from food industry-funded research?

According to Dr. Kearns and colleagues, their recent discovery suggests policymakers should “consider giving less weight to food industry-funded studies and include mechanistic and animal studies, as well as studies appraising the effect of added sugars on multiple CHD biomarkers and disease development.”

In her editorial, Nestle says the results emphasize that caution should be applied when interpreting the results of research funded by the food industry.

“May it serve as a warning not only to policymakers, but also to researchers, clinicians, peer reviewers, journal editors, and journalists of the need to consider the harm to scientific credibility and public health when dealing with studies funded by food companies with vested interests in the results,” she adds, “and to find better ways to fund such studies and to prevent, disclose and manage potentially conflicted interests.”

It is evident that the recent discovery of the sugar industry’s role in heart disease research has left a bitter taste in the mouths of nutritionists, policymakers, and the general public. Whether it has the ability to change approaches to food industry-funded research, however, remains to be seen.