Operating under the control of a complex internal electrical system, the heart beats out a continual rhythm from a few weeks after conception until death. This rhythm is ordinarily even and regular, changing speed as necessary to adjust to the body’s need for oxygen.
Sometimes, however, the heart’s rhythm becomes disturbed (“arrhythmic”). The most common and benign form of arrhythmia is the common “heart palpitation,” known technically as sinus arrhythmia. Generally, these are felt as a short run of thumps or flutters in the chest. Sinus arrhythmia is often caused by stress and anxiety. It poses no danger, although it can be annoying.
More serious forms of heart arrhythmia may occur as well. In later life, many people develop atrial fibrillation, a condition in which part of the heart contracts at excessive speed and another part follows along irregularly. Although some people live for years in a state of atrial fibrillation, this is a potentially dangerous condition that requires medical attention.
Other forms of heart arrhythmia are more dangerous still, including ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. These frequently occur after a heart attack. They are often heralded by ventricular premature complexes.
Conventional treatment for arrhythmia depends on the type involved. Sinus arrhythmias are often left untreated. More serious rhythm disturbances are addressed through the use of medications, defibrillation, or a pacemaker.
: Heart arrhythmias are far too dangerous for self-treatment. In all but the most obviously benign cases, medical supervision is mandatory.
Although the use of
to help prevent dangerous heart arrhythmias has received considerable research attention,
the evidence for its effectiveness remains conflicted.
tends to stabilize the heart, and intravenous infusions of magnesium are sometimes given to people in cardiac intensive care. However, a 6-month,
double-blind, placebo-controlled study
of 170 people did not find oral magnesium effective for maintaining normal heart rhythm in people with a tendency to develop atrial fibrillation.
Diuretic drugs in the
family tend to deplete the body of the minerals potassium and magnesium. People using such drugs are usually advised to take
supplements because potassium deficiency can cause arrhythmias. One small double-blind study failed to find that additional supplementation with magnesium further stabilized the heart.
Apparently, the extent of magnesium deficiency caused by thiazide diuretics is not severe enough to destabilize the heart’s rhythm.
However, the drug
appears to sensitize the heart to magnesium deficiency. People with
congestive heart failure (CHF)
are likely to use both digoxin and loop diuretics (another type of diuretic that depletes magnesium), and the net result can be cardiac arrhythmias
One small double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that magnesium supplements reduced episodes of ventricular arrhythmia in people with CHF.
A controlled study found preliminary evidence that vitamin C may help prevent one of the types of arrhythmia (atrial fibrillation) that can follow coronary artery bypass grafting.
However, because this trial failed to include a placebo group, its results are suspect.
is widely used to treat mild palpitations, but scientific evidence to show that it is effective consists only of partially relevant test-tube studies.
(NAC), a modified version of a dietary amino acid, was shown in a pilot placebo-controlled study (115 subjects) to reduce the incidence of atrial fibrillation following open-heart surgery, a common complication of this kind of procedure.
When palpitations are caused by
, herbs and supplements used for those conditions may be helpful. See the individual articles for more information.
Other herbs and supplements sometimes recommended for palpitations, but which have little supporting evidence, include
Preliminary evidence suggests that
may help prevent abnormal heart rhythms in people with atrial fibrillation who have undergone cardioversion (an electrical shock is delivered to the heart to return it to a normal rhythm).
Caffeine stimulates the heart and may cause minor palpitations. Herbs containing caffeine, such as
, would be expected to cause similar problems. The herb
also stimulates the heart and should be avoided by people with palpitations.
A few reports suggest that the supplement
could, at times, cause heart arrhythmias.
Numerous herbs and supplements may interact adversely with drugs used to prevent or treat arrhythmias. For more information on this potential risk, see the individual drug articles in the
section of this database.
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Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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