Written by Alice Sholl
8th Aug 2022 • 3 minute read
Dr Noel Young
Reviewed by
Dr Noel Young MBBS BSc, Medicine

An arrhythmia is when your heart beats out of rhythm. Symptoms include feeling dizzy, fainting, and shortness of breath. An arrhythmia can be prevented by maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.

What is an arrhythmia?

An arrhythmia is when your heart doesn’t beat normally. It might beat too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly.

Depending on what type of arrhythmia you have, it can be a big or small problem. For some people, it’s just uncomfortable, but for others it can be life threatening.

It can affect people of any age, but it’s more likely to happen if you’re older.

What are the different types of arrhythmia?

The main types of arrhythmia are:

  • atrial fibrillation — when your heartbeat is irregular and often faster
  • bradycardia  — when your heart beats below 60 beats a minute
  • supra-ventricular tachycardia — when your heart suddenly beats faster, even when you’re resting
  • heart block — when your heart beats slowly or with an abnormal rhythm 
  • ventricular fibrillation — a fast, irregular heartbeat which is sudden and life threatening

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia in people over 60 — it affects around 1.4 million people in the UK.

Arrhythmia symptoms

Symptoms of an arrhythmia include:

  • heart palpitations
  • feeling dizzy
  • being short of breath
  • fainting

These symptoms can also be a sign of other health problems — like low blood pressure (hypotension) and anxiety. If you’re experiencing them, it’s important to speak to a GP to find out what’s causing them.

What causes arrhythmias?

Arrhythmias can happen after your heart muscle is damaged, like from a heart attack, heart disease or viral illness. They can also be caused by: 

  • having high blood pressure for many years
  • electrolyte or mineral imbalances in your blood
  • certain genetic conditions can also lead to arrhythmias

Some lifestyle factors might also trigger an arrhythmia, like:

  • drinking alcohol, particularly binge drinking
  • smoking
  • having too much caffeine
  • recreational drugs — like cocaine and MDMA
  • cough and cold medicines
  • prescription medicines like heart, asthma, thyroid and pain medications

Avoiding or cutting down on these might help prevent you from developing arrhythmias.

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How are arrhythmias diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of an arrhythmia, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP. They might send you to a heart specialist, who might record your heart rhythm using:

  • an electrocardiogram (ECG) — an electrical recording of your heart’s rhythm
  • an echocardiogram (echo) — an ultrasound scan of your heart
  • a cardiac event recorder — a portable device which records your symptoms and heartbeat over time
  • an electrophysiological (EP) study — putting soft wires up a vein in your leg and into your heart while you’re given medicine to help you relax

Can arrhythmias be treated?

There are many ways to treat an arrhythmia, depending on how serious your condition is, like:

  • lifestyle changes — like eating a balanced diet and doing regular exercise
  • medication
  • surgery

It’s never too late to start living a healthy lifestyle. Doing this can prevent you from developing arrhythmias in future, and stop an existing arrhythmia getting worse.

If you have an arrhythmia, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP or consultant before you start a new exercise routine.

Can you prevent arrhythmias?

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce your arrhythmia risk, like:

  • regular exercise — aim for 150 minutes moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week
  • eating a diet full of fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses, oily fish, nuts and seeds, and whole grains — like a Mediterranean diet 
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week
  • stopping smoking — after a few weeks of no smoking, your inflammation levels become lower 
  • limiting the amount of salt in your diet