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.
Note: Heart arrhythmias are far too dangerous for self-treatment. In all but the most obviously benign cases, medical supervision is mandatory.
Proposed Natural Treatments for Cardiac Arrhythmia
The mineral magnesium 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. 3
Diuretic drugs in the thiazide family tend to deplete the body of the minerals potassium and magnesium. People using such drugs are usually advised to take potassium supplements because potassium deficiency can cause arrhythmias. One small double-blind study failed to find that additional supplementation with magnesium further stabilized the heart. 14 Apparently, the extent of magnesium deficiency caused by thiazide diuretics is not severe enough to destabilize the heart’s rhythm.
However, the drug digoxin 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 5-8 One small double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that magnesium supplements reduced episodes of ventricular arrhythmia in people with CHF. 4
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.19 However, because this trial failed to include a placebo group, its results are suspect.
N-acetyl cysteine (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.21
Herbs and Supplements to Avoid
Caffeine stimulates the heart and may cause minor palpitations. Herbs containing caffeine, such as guarana and cola nut , would be expected to cause similar problems. The herb ephedra also stimulates the heart and should be avoided by people with palpitations.
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 drug interactions section of this database.
2. Marchioli R, Barzi F, Bomba E, et al. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction: time-course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto Miocardico (GISSI)-Prevenzione. Circulation. 2002;105:1897-1903.
3. Frick M, Darpo B, Ostergren J, et al. The effect of oral magnesium, alone or as an adjuvant to sotalol, after cardioversion in patients with persistent atrial fibrillation. Eur Heart J. 2000;21:1177-1185.
9. Joseph G, Zhao Y, Klaus W. Pharmacologic profile of crataegus extract compared to epinephrine, amrinone, milrinone and digoxin in isolated guinea pig hearts [in German; English abstract]. Arzneimittelforschung. 1995;45:1261-1265.
11. Al Makdessi S, Sweidan H, Dietz K, et al. Protective effect of Crataegus oxyacantha against reperfusion arrhythmias after global no-flow ischemia in the rat heart. Basic Res Cardiol. 1999;94:71-77.
13. Kurcok A. Ischemia and reperfusion-induced cardiac injury: effects of two flavonoid containing plant extracts possessing radical scavenging properties [abstract]. Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol. 1992;345(suppl 1):R81.
14. Lumme JA, Jounela AJ. The effect of potassium and potassium plus magnesium supplementation on ventricular extrasystoles in mild hypertensives treated with hydrochlorothiazide. Int J Cardiol . 1989;25:93-98.
15. Calo L, Bianconi L, Colivicchi F, et al. N-3 Fatty acids for the prevention of atrial fibrillation after coronary artery bypass surgery: a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Coll Cardiol . 2005;45:1723-1728.
17. Raitt MH, Connor WE, Morris C, et al. Fish oil supplementation and risk of ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation in patients with implantable defibrillators: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2005;293:2884-2891.
19. Eslami M, Badkoubeh RS, Mousavi M, et al. Oral ascorbic acid in combination with beta-blockers is more effective than beta-blockers alone in the prevention of atrial fibrillation after coronary artery bypass grafting. Tex Heart Inst J. 2007;34:268-274.
21. Ozaydin M, Peker O, Erdogan D, et al. N-acetylcysteine for the prevention of postoperative atrial fibrillation: a prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study. Eur Heart J. 2008 Feb 8 [Epub ahead of print].
Last reviewed February 2008 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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