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Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a specific type of irregular heartbeat that's common in athletes - not just the elite ones.

Normally, the heart beats (contracts and pushes blood out) and then relaxes (and refills with blood) in preparation for the next beat.

The heart has four chambers for collecting and pushing blood out.  The top two chambers are the atria (one is an atrium) and the other two are the ventricles.  The atria relax and fill with blood, then contract and move the blood into the ventricles to be pushed out to the rest of the body.

In atrial fibrillation, the atria beat irregularly and are not able to efficiently fill with blood and can’t push blood into the ventricles.  Sometimes the irregular beats are described as ‘quivering’ rather than beating in uniform.

People with atrial fibrillation (AFib) may have a flip-flopping sensation over their heart, feel dizzy, lightheaded or weak.  Some have no symptoms as well.

AFib is a serious condition because of the associated risks of blood clots, strokes and other heart-related issues that it brings.  It’s thought that about 2.7 million people in the U.S have AFib.

AFib and Athletes

AFib is the most common heart-related arrhythmia in athletes, especially those in middle age.  And, it’s seen most common in long-term endurance athletes, regardless of whether they’ve trained at competitive or non-competitive levels.  Athletes of this type are thought to have about a 5-fold risk of developing AFib.

More specifically, AFib tends to affect runners, cyclists and skiers more so than boxers, weight lifters or wrestlers. It’s unclear what the exact relationship is between type of sport and risk of AFib.

afib in cyclists



Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

Researchers aren't exactly sure how AFib develops in athletes; there are undoubtedly several contributing factors but few that actually stand out in the research

One possible factor is the use of energy drinks amongst athletes.  These drinks typically contain anywhere from 50mg to 500mg of caffeine along with other compounds not specifically labeled as caffeine (guarana , green tea, etc). Certain individuals who may be genetically susceptible to the effects of caffeine on heart tissue may be at risk for developing AFib.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to pin down the exact causes of AFib and is most likely the result of a ‘perfect storm’ of several factors; that being said, endurance athletes should take note of their increased risk over the general population and be sure to have a detailed cardiac (heart) evaluation each year.

Nutritional Supplementation for Atrial Fibrillation

The following nutritional interventions may be helpful in cases of AFib; each has evidence in the scientific research regarding its use in this condition. 

  1. Magnesium - low levels of magnesium have been associated with the development and occurrence of AFib.  Magnesium has an effect on electrical conduction within the heart and muscular cells and has some potential to at least minimize AFib symptoms.

  2. Essential Fatty Acids - are a possible co-treatment for AFib due to their ‘blood thinning’ nature.  Stroke risk is higher in AFib and regular supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may possibly minimize this risk.  It’s important to note that previous studies have shown a decreased risk of AFib with omega-3 supplementation yet a newer study done in 2021 imparts a higher risk of AFib in certain people with other pre-existing heart conditions.  

  3. CoQ10 - occurs naturally in every cell of our bodies; it’s one of the final compounds our cells use to create energy in the form of ATP.  Heart tissue is one of the most dense locations of Coq10 in the entire body.  CoQ10 is also an antioxidant and has been shown to potentially reduce the occurrence of AFib.

Mainstream treatment can include varying types of medications including blood thinners, calcium channel blockers, beta-blockers and or antiarrhythmic drugs.  It’s important to be thoroughly evaluated and treated for this condition given the increased risks of heart complications from having it.  In addition to pharmaceutical treatment, the use of CoQ10, omega-3 fats and magnesium should be considered as well.

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