What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?

What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?

Risk Factors for AFib

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a complex group of symptoms without a cause. Yes, there are contributing factors and, for some of us, there are triggers to AFib events as well. While research continues, as AFibbers we have some control of our AFib treatment. There are three primary ones: lifestyle, meds and/or ablation.

First, there are some known contributing factors for AFib:

  • Smoking. Stopping smoking will decrease your risk for AFib by 36 percent. If you haven’t been nagged about this, you must be a hermit who never sees the doctor.
  • High blood pressure. Uncontrolled will increase your risk for AFib by 56 percent. Get a blood pressure cuff and take it every day. Write it down. Show your doc. This is usually an easy fix.
  • Alcohol. One drink a day increases AFib risk, if it is a trigger for you. What’s more important? Your heart or a few hours of fun?
  • Stimulants. This includes coffee, tea, energy drinks, sugar, and chocolate. Some AFibbers can’t get near caffeine, sugar or chocolate — others can. Long-term, high use can be a problem.
  • Sleep apnea. Treating sleep apnea decreases the risk of AFib by 42 percent and doubles the success rates of medications and ablation. Sleep apnea is diagnosed by a sleep study — get it done, even if it is just to rule it out.
  • Diabetes. This increases the risk of AFib by 40 percent. Control your blood sugar with the right foods, walking and potentially medications.
  • Obesity. Increases the risk of AFib by 52 percent, or an increase of four percent per one point in BMI.
  • Stress. Increases the risk of AFib by three to five percent. Who doesn’t have stress? That hermit I mentioned earlier? Magnesium taurate is especially helpful for anxiety and some sleep issues for AFibbers. Acupuncture, Tai Chi and meditation can also help.
  • Genetics. If you have a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with AFib, this increases your risk by 40 percent. Not much can be done for this one.
  • NSAID use longer than four weeks. This increases your risk of AFib by 12 percent. If you’ve been taking pain meds over-the-counter, it may be time to find the root of the pain or help alleviate it with other methods like mindfulness, gentle yoga, or acupuncture.

Other risk factors for AFib include long-term opioid use, C-RP and homocysteine blood levels greater than 5.0, and exercise.


Not just any exercise, but exercise in incorrect amounts. Moderate exercise (less than five hours per week) decreases your AFib risk by 50 percent. However, heavy exercise (more than five hours per week) increases risk by 30 percent.

This is why you see endurance, distance, and/or elite (really healthy) athletes who get AFib.

Most of these are straightforward and your primary care physician has probably already discussed some of them with you. Just remember, you can’t go back to old habits just because you had a successful ablation or your meds are working now.

AFib Triggers

These are a little trickier to pin down. For me, if it happens three to five times in a row causing AFib, it’s a trigger.

These are the most mentioned triggers on my AFib support forum:

  • Sugar
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Salt and/or MSG
  • Spicy foods
  • Very cold or very hot drinks
  • Stress
  • Very cold or very hot weather
  • Dehydration (dehydration and AFib often go hand-in-hand!)
  • Lack of sleep
  • Hormones, especially PMS or menopause symptoms
  • Loud noises, like concerts, movies, etc.
  • Headaches
  • Being ill

Being sick is tricky for AFibbers. Between the symptoms causing palpitations and having to be careful about over-the-counter meds interacting with our AFib, it helps to talk with your pharmacist.

It takes time and documenting to find most of these. About 20 percent of AFibbers will have no triggers or contributing factors for AFib. It just happens. It is a frustrating diagnosis for AFibbers and their EPs.

One thing to keep in mind is you are not alone. There are 6 million AFibbers in the US. Take it one day at a time and one change at a time. You can do this.

Debbe McCallDebbe McCall

Debbe McCall is an atrial fibrillation patient and the steering committee chair of the Health eHeart Alliance, a patient-powered research network dedicated to preventing and managing cardiovascular disease.

Aug 2, 2016
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