By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Often when I write about the best and worst foods for the heart, I talk in the context of heart-healing foods that are good to eat, as well as foods that should be avoided because they fan the flames of inflammation. Those discussions focus on how the things we eat and drink every day affect heart health over the long haul.
Today, though, I want to shift gears and focus on foods (including beverages) that can have more immediate and noticeable impacts on the heart—starting with foods that can cause heart palpitations. In this article I’ll explore:
- Why Foods Cause Heart Palpitations
- 3 Common Foods That May Cause Heart Palpitations
- What to Do If Foods Are Causing You to Have Heart Palpitations
- Healthy-Heart Foods That May Help Prevent Heart Palpitations
And be sure to check out the latest (and last) article in my heartbeat series:
Why Foods Cause Heart Palpitations
Feeling palpitations after eating is a relatively common experience, which tends to occur when a substance in your food or drink—or your body’s natural biochemical response to that substance—jolts the heart’s electrical system and causes fluttering sensations, skipped beats, or a feeling that your heart is beating too hard or too fast.
Coffee drinkers, think about the last time you drank one cup too many. You know what I mean!
If your heart is healthy and you have no history of arrhythmia or heart disease—and you’re not experiencing any other symptoms—there’s little need to worry about an occasional episode of these irregular beats. For people who do have arrhythmias or cardiac issues, however, it’s a different story. Palpitations caused by food can cause an existing disruption in your heart’s rhythm to escalate, and potentially lead to a major event.
Foods That Cause Heart Palpitations: An Unholy Trinity
If you’ve had a heart attack or other cardiac event, have abnormalities in the shape or function of your heart, or have been diagnosed with an arrhythmia of some kind, I recommend staying away from foods that cause heart palpitations—especially these three:
1. Caffeinated Foods / Beverages
The research around caffeine is a little less definitive since a study released at the start of 2016 found no relationship between caffeine consumption and palpitations. However, those results don’t change the fact that caffeine revs up your sympathetic nervous system and spikes your levels of stress hormones (namely, adrenaline and cortisol), raising your blood pressure and increasing your heart rate. Caffeine also acts as a diuretic, which can wash away your potassium and magnesium stores, creating an electrolyte imbalance that disrupts the heart rhythm.
In my experience, placing extra stress on the heart—as caffeine does—can aggravate existing arrhythmias or cause new ones. One of the reasons beta blockers are prescribed to heart attack patients is that they help control heart rate and prevent sudden changes in heart rate and rhythm by blunting the effect of the stress hormone adrenaline.
For those of you with healthy hearts, your daily dose of coffee, tea, or chocolate probably won’t cause any harm. Beware, though, of caffeine-containing energy drinks, which are particularly popular with young people. These drinks, which combine caffeine with large amounts of sugar, have been linked with heart palpitations, arrhythmia, heart attack, and sudden cardiac death in adolescents and young adults.
In addition to creating inflammation in the body, sugar is a stimulant with the ability to cause heart palpitations. The most obvious example is when you eat too much of it at one time. Initially you feel a “sugar rush,” which can cause palpitations. Later, you may also feel them when your blood sugar comes crashing back down, often to a level lower than normal.
Eating smaller portions of sugar-filled foods each day can put you at risk for palpitations as well, because it causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar is a common cause of racing skipped heart beats. Lower your risk by minimizing sugar consumption.
The link between alcohol and heart palpitations and arrhythmia is well documented. In fact, occurrences with binge drinking are so common that there is even a name for it: Holiday Heart Syndrome. The term refers to otherwise healthy people who suffer atrial or ventricular arrhythmias (often ventricular tachycardia) when they overindulge.
Obviously, if alcohol can have such an effect on a healthy heart, anyone with compromised heart health should abstain—even if it’s just one glass of wine. The risk is just too high.
What to Do if Foods Cause You Heart Palpitations
First off, take note if you feel any additional symptoms, because those could signal that you’re experiencing more than simple palpitations. Seek emergency medical help if at any point you also have:
- Shortness of breath
- Profuse sweating
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Loss of consciousness
- Chest pain or pressure
- Pain or discomfort in the upper back, arms, neck, or jaw
- Feeling of impending doom
If it’s the first time you’ve ever noticed heart palpitations, make a follow-up appointment with your doctor. It’s likely nothing is wrong, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution and make sure that the food-related episode isn’t the first sign of a bigger issue.
Next, start a log and record times when the palpitations recur. Note what you ate or drank and what sort of emotional state you were in. If specific foods or beverages tend to cause recurrences, take that as a sign you should reduce or eliminate those foods from your diet. Your body and your heart couldn’t be telling you any more clearly that those substances are doing you harm.
Opt for Healthy-Heart Foods Instead
Just as there are foods that cause heart palpitations, there are “healthy-heart” foods that may help prevent them. Here are four of my favorites:
I love wild-caught salmon—it’s one of my Sinatra Super Foods for its heart health benefits. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have a calming, anti-inflammatory effect on the heart and vascular system. Omega-3s also have been shown in studies to protect against sudden cardiac death caused by arrhythmias.
Nuts and Seeds
Since one underlying cause of arrhythmia and palpitations is electrolyte imbalance, it’s a good idea to up your intake of magnesium-rich nuts and seeds. Magnesium is a key electrolyte needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Spinach, kale, chard, and other green leafy vegetables are also rich sources of magnesium and heart-healing foods.
Avocados bring you the best of two worlds. They are good sources of magnesium, as well as potassium—another key electrolyte. You probably know bananas and citrus fruits to be a top source of potassium, but I like avocados because they also supply the body with a lot of healthy fats. Though fruits are certainly part of any healthy diet, they’re much higher in sugar.
- Anand RG. The role of fish oil in arrhythmia prevention. J Cardiopulm Rehabil Prev. 2008 Mar-Apr;28(2):92–8.
- Ettinger PO, et al. Arrhythmias and the “Holiday Heart”: alcohol-associated cardiac rhythm disorders. Am Heart J. 1978 May; 95(5):555–62.
- Goldfarb M, et al. Review of published cases of adverse cardiovascular events after ingestion of energy drinks. Am J Cardiol. 2014. Jan 1;113(1):168–72.
- Maier S. University of California–San Francisco. Regular caffeine use does not result in extra heartbeats, study shows. 26 Jan 2016. Accessed July 20, 2016.
- Di Rocco JR, et al. Atrial fibrillation in healthy adolescents after highly caffeinated beverage consumption: two case reports. J Med Case Reports. 2011;5(1):18.
- Scott MJ, et al. Myocardial infarction in a young adult following the consumption of a caffeinated energy drink. BMJ Case Rep. Jun 2011;2011.
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