While there have been many connections made between patients that have heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation and other cardiovascular illnesses, there is still much to be done when considering why comorbidities between atrial fibrillation and gastrointestinal conditions are so prevalent.

If you’re wondering the same question, you’re in the right place – we’ll discuss atrial fibrillation and its connection to digestive or gastrointestinal problems in this article.

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a form of heart arrythmia, where the heart rate becomes irregular and can reach a concerningly rapid rate. The condition is caused when electrical signals in the two upper chambers of the heart begin to connect in a non-systematic manner. This can lead to the sensation that your heart is fluttering or that you’re having heart palpitations, as the two upper chambers in the heart are twitching irregularly.

It is a manageable condition when the ideal medications and routine alterations are found. When left untreated, however, atrial fibrillation can become a serious medical condition. This is because it can lead to life-threatening complications, like blood clots, which could cause a stroke.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation can come and go, so it’s easy to brush off as a minor inconvenience. Despite this, it is a serious issue and anyone experiencing symptoms of atrial fibrillation should always be checked out by a doctor. Other times, symptoms are regular and even constant. Some symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Heart arrythmia – where the heartbeat becomes irregular, feels like it is fluttering, going too fast or skipping a beat
  • Fatigue and weakness, fainting
  • Dizziness, light-headedness
  • Inability to exercise
  • Feeling confused
  • Chest pains

If you experience these ongoing symptoms and are concerned about atrial fibrillation, see a medical professional. Complications related to the condition can occur if it is ignored over time, like stroke. Having AF also increases the likelihood of incident heart failure. This is because the condition means the heart must work much more to maintain homeostasis. The fast and irregular heart rate also means the heart can’t adequately fill with blood that can then be pumped around the body.

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

Sometimes, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of AF. It can, however, be more common in individuals who already have medical issues; especially those related to cardiovascular health. It’s more common in older people, men,and those with family who have experienced atrial fibrillation, so some incidents of the condition may be rooted within genetics.

Cardiovascular Conditions that Increase the Risk of Atrial Fibrillation

  • Heart failure, heart disease, heart surgery
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Pericarditis

Other Medical Conditions Linked to Atrial Fibrillation

  • Pneumonia
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Lung cancer
  • Asthma
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Some medications
  • An unhealthy lifestyle

Atrial Fibrillation and Gastrointestinal Issues

Alongside being more common in those with underlying cardiovascular problems, there are often comorbidities between atrial fibrillation and gastrointestinal issues. Studies are being carried out to determine the links between the two medical problems, helping us figure out in further detail how the conditions can best be managed.

It is difficult to say which of the conditions leaves patients more vulnerable to developing the other; or whether certain treatments used afterthe diagnosis of either gastrointestinal health issues or atrial fibrillation can lead to the emergence of comorbidities.

A 2014 study investigated the topic and found that 40% of patients with atrial fibrillation also experienced gastrointestinal issues.One of the most common comorbidities was dyspepsia – commonly known as indigestion. Other digestive problems linked to AF include GERD (acid reflux), .

There are a few explanations as to why digestive problems are often experienced alongside atrial fibrillation.

·         Medications used in the treatment of AF often have gastrointestinal side effects.

It has been determined that the pharmaceuticals used in helping treat those with atrial fibrillation can cause gastrointestinal issues as a side effect. This includes medications such as anticoagulants, NSAIDs, and corticosteroids. Other associated treatments, such as catheter ablation, can lead to serious gastrointestinal conditions such as severe oesophageal injury. While medications to treat AF are essential in maintaining health, it’s important to also treat these unpleasant digestive symptoms that may arise.

·         Complications related to AF could cause gastrointestinal problems.

Studies have also found evidence suggesting that patients with atrial fibrillation were more likely to develop mesenteric ischemia. This is where there is a blockage or restricted blood flow to part of the intestines, compromising the efficiency of the digestive system. The blockages are frequently brought on due to blood clots that originate within the heart – which can be caused by a ‘chaotic’ or irregular heart rate. This explains why those with AF are more likely to develop mesenteric ischemia.

It is a serious gastrointestinal condition that can severely impact the quality of life for those who develop it. Symptoms can include intense stomach cramps (particularly after eating), vomiting, and diarrhoea. Over time, weight loss can occur as the avoidance of food becomes preferable to the pain associated with post-meal digestive stress. Mesenteric ischemia can cause necrosis (dead tissue) and failure of parts of the intestines, and both digestive and vascular surgery may be required as a result.

·         Gastrointestinal disease means patients may be predisposed to developing AF.

A 2019 review of gastrointestinal and liver diseases and atrial fibrillation investigated this. The review suggests that inflammatory gastrointestinal diseases are also linked to wider systemic inflammation. The link here is supported by the growing number of studies explaining how atrial fibrillation is associated with inflammation in the body.

·         Mechanical interactions between the left atrium and oesophagus.

A study into the cardiogastric interactions between AF and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, or acid reflux), looked at anatomical links between the conditions. They outlined how the left atrium in the heart (where abnormal AF signals originate) is close to the oesophagus. The researchers suggested that the proximity between the two can lead to mechanical irritation. So, when AF is sending chaotic signals and pumping blood irregularly, this can aggravate the nearby oesophagus and lead to acid reflux.

Preventing Atrial Fibrillation with Lifestyle Changes

There are plenty of changes you can make to your lifestyle if you do feel you’re at higher risk of experiencing atrial fibrillation.

  • Exercise, stay active and eat healthily if you are overweight
  • Don’t binge drink or take illegal drugs that increase heart rate
  • Quit or cut down on smoking
  • Avoid excess caffeine intake
  • Make sure gastrointestinal and digestive problems are diagnosed and treated by an expert.

Speak to Digestive Health UK Today

If you are experiencing gastrointestinal problems as the result of atrial fibrillation, it’s only natural that you’d like to find a solution. Alternatively, you might be looking to reduce the symptoms associated with your digestive health problem, in the hopes that this will reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular conditions such as AF.

That’s why we’re here! Our London-based gastroenterologists take a holistic approach when it comes to identifying, treating, and managing digestive health problems – no matter what the cause behind them may be. We achieve this highly successful, all-encompassing view of gastrointestinal health by collaborating with other experts in related fields, from dieticians to throat doctors. That’s exactly why we’re able to provide each patient with the utmost quality care, from the UK’s leading specialist Consultant Gastroenterologists and Doctors.

Call our team to book an appointment with us now.

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