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Alcohol and AFib

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Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a condition where the heart beats rapidly and is out of rhythm. Drinking alcohol, even in small amounts, can increase the risk of developing AFib and cause occasional episodes (paroxysmal) to become persistent or permanent. For example, a recent study that followed 108,000 individuals over 14 years found that, compared to abstaining, the risk for AFib rose by 16%, 28%, and 47% for one, two, and four drinks, respectively.

If you have AFib and an alcohol use disorder, you are encouraged to seek integrated treatment that addresses both conditions. If you’ve been struggling to control your drinking despite the adverse effects it’s having on your mental and physical health, Guardian Recovery can help. Our integrated programs include evidence-based services like medical detox, individual therapy, and relapse prevention to help individuals begin their journey to a sober, healthy, and more fulfilling life.

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What is Atrial Fibrillation?

AFib is a type of arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) in which the heart’s regular cycle of electrical impulses is interrupted. This leads to a rapid, erratic heart rhythm and poor blood movement from the heart’s upper chambers (atria) to the lower chambers (ventricles). Common symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, heart palpitations, and breathing difficulties. AFib may occur in short episodes, or the condition may be permanent. (2)

This condition can be dangerous and has been associated with an increased risk of blood clots, heart attack, and stroke. If you have AFib and experience chest pain, severe shortness of breath, rapid heartbeats, or loss of consciousness, you are urged to seek medical attention immediately.

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

Within the upper right chamber are specialized cells collectively known as the sinus node—the heart’s natural pacemaker. The sinus node produces the signals that trigger each heartbeat. During AFib, these signals become chaotic in the heart’s upper chambers, causing them to shake or quiver. Another node connecting the upper and lower chambers is then flooded with signals, leading to a rapid and chaotic heart rhythm. (3)

Problems with the heart’s structure are the most common cause of AFib, but some people with the condition have no known heart issues or damage. (4)

Possible Causes of AFib Include:

  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Congenital heart defects.
  • Heart attack.
  • Heart valve problems.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Lung cancer and disease.
  • Previous heart surgery.
  • Sick sinus syndrome.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Asthma.
  • Thyroid diseases.
  • Use of stimulants.
  • Alcohol consumption.
  • Viral infections.

Risk Factors & Triggers for AFib Include: (6)

  • Older age.
  • Being of European descent.
  • Being overweight or obese.
  • Heart disease, including congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure, or history of heart attack or surgery.
  • High blood pressure, especially that which is not well-controlled.
  • Thyroid disease.
  • Other chronic health conditions, including diabetes, chronic kidney disease, lung disease, or sleep apnea.
  • Family history of AFib.
  • Alcohol use disorder.

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Does Drinking Increase the Risk of AFib?

People who drink alcohol (even in low amounts) may be more likely to have an episode of AFib. One recent study suggests excessive or binge drinking is linked with an increased risk of having an AFib attack, even among those who’ve never had an episode before. According to researchers, their data “suggest that acute alcohol consumption…is associated with a higher risk of discrete [AFib] episodes as well as for new-onset (incident) [AFib].” (7)

Due to widespread availability, alcohol is the most commonly consumed drug in the United States. Of relevance, it also appears to be a significant risk factor for AFib. The recommended guidelines for drinking is no more than one drink per day for women and two for men. (7) Binge drinking, which is associated with an exceptionally high risk of AFib, is defined as consuming more than four drinks on a single occasion for women and five for men. (8)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1 in 6 American adults engage in binge drinking, and approximately one-quarter do so weekly. Furthermore, one-quarter has at least eight drinks during an episode. The CDC also states binge drinking can contribute to heart disease, including cardiomyopathy, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and stroke. (9)

Alcohol Can Worsen Existing AFib

Drinking can cause temporary or mild AFib to progress into a more persistent and severe condition. (10) Paroxysmal AFib episodes are intermittent; some people have had a single attack without experiencing one again. Nonetheless, regular alcohol use can lead to longer AFib episodes lasting a week or more. It is still treatable at this stage. However, if nothing is done to address it, such as reducing alcohol use, AFib can become chronic or even permanent. From then on, AFib will require lifelong medical management.

Alcohol’s Adverse Effects on the Heart

Although the mechanisms by which alcohol damages the heart are not entirely understood, significant evidence illustrates its many effects. For example, we know that as alcohol consumption increases, so do adverse effects such as heart disease. For those with existing AFib, this combined risk can lead to a more significant and dangerous cardiac event.

Alcohol weakens the heart muscle, meaning it has to work harder to pump blood through the rest of the body, thereby increasing blood pressure. A weakened heart is also more prone to developing arrhythmias like AFib. (11)

Other Ways Alcohol Contributes to AFib

Heart disease is typically thought of as a condition that develops over many years due to lifestyle, genetic, and environmental factors. However, alcohol can cause AFib to manifest in healthy individuals relatively quickly. For example, during the holidays, hospitals often experience an influx of emergency room patients with AFib symptoms—a phenomenon known as holiday heart syndrome caused by binge drinking at holiday parties. (12) Even for those who don’t usually drink, this behavior can lead to an AFib episode that feels like cardiac arrest.

In addition, alcohol stimulates the vagus nerve, which travels through much of the body and controls specific bodily functions, including digestion and heart rate. A sudden increase in vagus nerve response can provoke an AFib attack. (13) Finally, alcohol is a diuretic with dehydrating effects, and dehydration can trigger AFib episodes on its own. (14)

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Getting Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use, especially heavy use or binge drinking, is a significant risk factor for many severe health problems, including cardiovascular diseases like AFib. If you have other risk factors for AFib, such as pre-existing heart disease, curbing alcohol use could reduce your likelihood of AFib. Even if you aren’t concerned with developing this condition, curbing your drinking can benefit you and nearly all facets of your physical and emotional health and wellness.

At Guardian Recovery, we want to help you break your alcohol dependence so you can concentrate on other important aspects of your well-being. Contact us today for a free assessment and no-obligation health benefits check. You’ll be connected with an experienced Treatment Advisor who can explain our streamlined admission process and various levels of care. If you are motivated to free yourself from alcohol addiction, we can help you navigate the recovery process and reclaim the life you deserve.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.escardio.org/The-ESC/Press-Office/Press-releases/One-small-alcoholic-drink-a-day-is-linked-to-an-increased-risk-of-atrial-fibrillation (2)https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/atrial-fibrillation/what-are-the-symptoms-of-atrial-fibrillation-afib-or-af (3)https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/atrial-fibrillation (4)https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atrial-fibrillation/causes/ (5)(6)https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/atrial-fibrillation/causes (7)https://www.nature.com/articles/s44161-021-00003-7 (8)https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm (9)https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm (10)https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm (11)https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/alcohol-related-diseases/alcohol-and-the-heart (12)https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/12/health/holiday-heart-syndrome-wellness/index.html (13)https://www.kardia.com/blog/afib-and-alcohol (14)https://drafib.com/blog/afib-triggers

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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