It’s no secret that drinking alcohol is associated with a wide range of unpleasant health outcomes, with excessive drinking impacting everything from your liver to your mental health. For most, a little alcohol in moderation won’t do too much damage. However, it turns out that alcohol could be extra dangerous if you’re at risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heartbeat that can lead to a range of dangerous and potentially fatal outcomes. In fact, a new study suggests that drinking alcohol could trigger AFib episodes.
In the study, which was published in the journal JAMA Cardiology, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) looked at 466 patients who self-reported their supposed AFib triggers. Of all the potential triggers—including caffeine, dehydration, exercise, and lack of sleep—only exposure to alcohol was found to actually increase the risk of an episode.
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“There is now fairly overwhelming evidence from multiple studies that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of both the eventual development of an atrial fibrillation diagnosis, as well as the probability a discrete atrial fibrillation event [i.e. an episode] will occur,” the study’s lead author Gregory Marcus, MD, MAS, professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology at UCSF, told Eat This, Not That! in an interview. “The relationship appears to be linear, meaning the more alcohol consumed, the higher the risk of atrial fibrillation.”
Marcus cautioned that the risk probably varies from individual to individual, so while one person could be fine regularly having a couple drinks, someone else may not be. In general, if you want to know if you’re in danger of this common arrhythmia, risk factors include diabetes, European ancestry, high blood pressure, old age, and smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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“It [the study] is a clever design—the results are credible—and confirms what has been known for decades: that heavy drinking can lead to cardiac arrythmias including atrial fibrillation,” neuropsychopharmacologist professor David Nutt, DM, FRCP, FRCPsych, FSB, FMedSci, and author of Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Health, told Eat This, Not That!. “I personally have seen patients where this happens, so people who have a risk of atrial fibrillation should monitor their alcohol intake and moderate it if they find it increases their episodes.”
To learn more about the relationship between your alcohol consumption and your cardiovascular health, check out What Happens to Your Heart When You Drink Alcohol.