Cardiology For Patients Hot Topics Wellbeing & Fitness

Understanding the role alcohol plays in heart palpitations and rhythm problems

Heart rhythm problems affect millions of us in Britain. Can we prevent them from happening in the first place? Dr Jonathan Clague at Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospitals Specialist Care says the damaging effects of alcohol on our cardiovascular health must be made clearer.

Have you ever felt your heart do something unusual? The smallest jump or flutter can serve as a reminder that the heart is there, beating away and keeping us going. But regular or frequent palpitations, fatigue, or shortness of breath can mean there’s something more serious going on.


About arrhythmia and alcohol

Arrhythmia happens when your heart’s rhythm gets out of sync, either going too fast or too slow. The most common reason is atrial fibrillation, which affects the heart’s top chambers, the atria. The chaotic, inefficient beating of the heart that results from atrial fibrillation (AF) can contribute to further and more serious risks when left undiagnosed or untreated.

AF affects more men than women. And it’s the leading cause of strokes in Britain. This is because the heart might not empty itself of blood at each beat, forming a clot which can travel in the bloodstream to the brain and interrupt the blood flow.

Dr Jonathan Clague, consultant cardiologist at Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospitals Specialist Care, says it’s important to prevent AF from developing in the first place. Alcohol consumption is the biggest contributory factor in developing the condition.

Dr Clague explains, “Typically, someone with the condition who gets occasional paroxysmal atrial fibrillation tends to be male in his 40s or 50s who exercises a lot and drinks a bit too much. Your body can’t offset alcohol with extreme exercise.”

“In fact that’s the last thing you should do. The advice is to limit your alcohol consumption to safer levels instead. Contemporary guidance says nobody should drink more than 14 units a week.”


AF in Britain – The facts

  • 25% of us will develop atrial fibrillation at some time during our lives
  • More than a million of us currently suffer it in the UK
  • When you have AF your stroke risk increases five times
  • Alcohol consumption is the single biggest contributory factor in developing AF


Innovative diagnosis

If your heart is constantly out of rhythm, it’s easy to diagnose with an electrocardiogram (ECG). But if the symptoms are less frequent a holter monitor test should be carried out. This is a small wearable ECG machine that monitors things for several days to find out if AF is the cause.

If the diagnosis is AF it can be corrected. Dr Clague increasingly uses ablation, a technique where a specially trained cardiologist inserts catheters into the body to destroy small areas in the upper heart and prevent the arrhythmia happening. While it’s a challenging procedure, it doesn’t require open heart surgery. Surgeons reach the heart via delicate catheters placed in the vein that leads from the groin to the heart.


People need to know alcohol can cause heart problems

The best cure for AF is prevention. Every smoker knows smoking kills, but while most of us understand alcohol damages the liver and can result in mental health issues, few know what an impact alcohol has on the heart, where it can cause serious problems.



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