What is atrial fibrillation?

Understanding your condition

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common cardiac arrhythmia, and its incidence continues to increase. It is defined as an unregulated, chaotic and ineffective contraction of the heart's top two chambers known as the atria. As a result of the ineffective contraction of the atria, ventricular (the main pumping chambers of the heart) contraction can also be affected.

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middle aged woman dancing in kitchen with daughter

Looking beyond the heart

A common misconception about atrial fibrillation is that it is entirely caused by an “electrical” abnormality in the heart.  Whilst this is true in a small number of people, for most, the underlying cause will be changes to the structure and function of the heart that are also contributors to the development of cardiometabolic disease.

Our practitioners take a thorough assessment of a person's health using the most up to date information and testing to understand what other factors might be causing or contributing to their atrial fibrillation, and create a personalised plan to help them get better again.


Atrial fibrillation symptoms

In most people, atrial fibrillation is asymptomatic most of the time. Most commonly, the first symptom that will present for most people will be heart palpitations or a general sense of the heart racing. Other signs and symptoms associated with atrial fibrillation can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Reduce exercise tolerance
  • Dizziness
  • Constant feeling of weakness or fatigue
  • Chest pain

Atrial fibrillation has 2 main patterns of presentation. Persistent atrial fibrillation is where the arrhythmia is continuous, and paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, which is intermittent periods of fibrillation that self-correct within a few hours up to a few days.

Whilst all mechanisms for the development of atrial fibrillation are not yet fully understood, structural changes to the connective and muscle tissues layers surrounding the atria and pulmonary veins, have been found to give rise to electrically charged groups of cells known as ectopic foci. When these foci begin to 'fire', they interrupt the normal coordinated contraction of the heart's muscle.

Root causes of atrial fibrillation

A small number of people who develop atrial fibrillation (15%) will have lone AFib that is a result of a known and identifiable structural or electrophysiological problem with the heart.

However the majority of people who develop atrial fibrillation, the cause is related to hypertension, valve dysfunction, ischaemia heart disease, and other adaptive changes to the heart structure.  Some people have a genetic predisposition to developing familial atrial fibrillation.

Whilst atrial fibrillation is not considered a part of cardiometabolic disease, all factors associated with cardiometabolic disease including smoking, hypertension, over consumption of alcohol, sleep disturbances, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes mellitus, a suboptimal diet, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and ineffective stress management, are all associated with a 3-6 fold increase in the risk for developing atrial fibrillation.  As such, addressing the lifestyle, cardiovascular and neuro-endocrine factors that contribute to cardiometabolic disease and atrial fibrillation is an essential component of addressing the root cause.

Surprisingly, infection with the pathogens Helicobacter pylori and Chlamydia pneumoniae may predispose some people to the onset of atrial fibrillation.

Contributing factors to atrial fibrillation

The main contributing factors to the development of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Family history of atrial fibrillation
  • Smokers have a 2-fold increased risk for atrial fibrillation
  • Hypertension increases risk of atrial fibrillation by 56%
  • Excess alcohol consumption increases risk of atrial fibrillation by more than 40%
  • People who suffer from sleep disturbances have 3-fold increased risk
  • Diabetes increase risk by 40%
  • Poor diet contributing to cardiovascular and cardiometabolic disease increases the risk for developing AFib
  • Obesity and inactive lifestyle significantly increases the risk of developing AFib
  • Effective stress management has demonstrated 85% less arrhythmic episodes in people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation
  • Having a history of thyroid disorder
  • Exposure to air pollution and environmental toxins

It is also important to address all of the underlying factors for the development of cardiometabolic disease.

People diagnosed with atrial fibrillation have a six-fold increased risk of stroke, and a two-fold increase in all-cause mortality due to the impact atrial fibrillation can have on the dynamics of the cardiovascular system.

What causes eczema?


Research has found people with the ‘atopic triad’ have a defective barrier of the skin and upper and lower respiratory tracts.

These genetic alterations cause a loss of function of filaggrin (filament aggregating protein), which is a protein in the skin that normally breaks down to create natural moisturisation and protect the skin from penetration by pathogens and allergens.

Filaggrin mutations are found in approximately 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis, and also predispose people to asthma, allergic rhinitis (hayfever), keratosis pilaris (dry rough patches and bumps on the skin), and ichthyosis vulgaris (a chronic condition which causes thick, dry, scaly skin.)If one parent carries this genetic alteration, there is a 50 percent chance their child will develop atopic symptoms. And that risk increases to 80 percent if both parents are affected. 

Food allergy and sensitivity

Food hypersensitivity has been found to cause or exacerbate atopic dermatitis in 10-30% of cases, and 90% of these are caused by eggs, milk, peanuts, soy and wheat.

Compromised gut health

The connection between the gut microbiome and skin health is complex, however, research has found the microbiota contributes to the development, persistence, and severity of atopic dermatitis through immunologic, metabolic and neuroendocrine pathways.

Nutritional deficiencies

Deficiency of Omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFA) has been linked with the increased incidence of atopic dermatitis, along with the inability for the body to efficiently metabolise EFA’s to gamma linoleic acids (GLA) and arachidonic acids (AA).

Weather and environment

Changing weather conditions can certainly aggravate eczema symptoms, but the triggers are subject to change among individuals.


Hormones also play a role in the course of atopic dermatitis, including the stress hormone cortisol which triggers an inflammatory immune response affecting all organs of the body, including the skin.

Mould exposure

Mould exposure and susceptibility to mould can cause Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), of which dermatitis is a manifestation.

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Atrial fibrillation treatment - the conventional approach

The conventional approach to atrial fibrillation management is to treat it purely as a problem with cardiac electrophysiology.  For uncomplicated cases this will usually mean taking daily medication to control the heart rhythm.  Such medications may include beta-blockers, calcium channel blocker or specific antiarrhythmics.  In most cases a person will also be prescribed an anticoagulant to prevent blood clots forming which can be a serious risk factor for people with atrial fibrillation.

In more serious cases a person may require defibrillation to shock the heart back into sinus rhythm, or radio frequency ablation if an accessory pathway is found to be the cause of the atrial fibrillation.

When these interventions fail to work, an ablation procedure may be repeated, which occurs in 50% of patients. Your doctor might suggest installation of a pacemaker that helps regulate heartbeats if other treatments are not effective.

How to reverse atrial fibrillation naturally - the Melbourne Functional Medicine approach

In our clinic, cardiometabolic practitioner Mark Payne helps patients with atrial fibrillation identify and address the root cause of their condition so they can feel well again. This starts with a comprehensive assessment of a patient's health, including:

  • Health history
  • Family history
  • Diet and lifestyle
  • Cardiometabolic health
  • Gut health
  • Inflammation

Functional testing may be suggested to help identify the factors contributing to atrial fibrillation, and may include:

  • Inflammation markers like c-reactive protein
  • Metabolic assessment e.g. glucose management, blood lipids
  • Testing for H.pylori or other pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract
  • Food sensitivities
  • Nutrient status e.g. vitamin D
  • Thyroid health
  • Comprehensive gut health assessment
  • Toxic load assessment e.g. heavy metal analysis

Then, a personalised atrial fibrillation natural treatment plan will be formulated, and with the support of a health coach - an expert in behaviour change - patients will implement a plan that may include:

  • An anti-inflammatory diet, like the Mediterranean diet, to help reduce inflammation
  • Removal of inflammatory foods like processed foods, refined vegetable oils and refined sugar
  • Addressing underlying pathogens like H.pylori
  • Stress management techniques like meditation or mindfulness
  • Smoking cessation and alcohol reduction
  • Supplementation of nutrients that either directly or indirectly help regulate heart contractions such as magnesium, potassium, carnitine, COQ10, and taurine
  • Targeted protocols to address other factors like thyroid health, digestive disorders, or toxin exposure

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How to reverse atrial fibrillation naturally

For those wanting to get rid of atrial fibrillation naturally, current evidence suggests that atrial fibrillation management and prevention should be firstly addressed through modifiable lifestyle factors. Arrhythmia natural treatment might include:

Most people who develop atrial fibrillation will also have other factors that contribute to the development of cardiovascular and cardiometabolic disease, so it is important that these factors are addressed as part of a comprehensive prevention or management strategy.

What atrial fibrillation feels like

Typically atrial fibrillation starts with heart palpitations that feel out of rhythm, fast, and chaotic. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, weakness or fatigue and a reduction in exercise intolerance.

What causes atrial fibrillation of the heart?

In around 15% of people, atrial fibrillation is caused electrophysiological problem with the heart. The remaining majority of people will have cardiometabolic factors like diabetes, hypertension, insulin resistance, stress, high cholesterol, obesity and inflammation as underlying issues that contribute to the development of atrial fibrillation.

Can caffeine cause atrial fibrillation?

Current evidence is divided on whether caffeine can cause atrial fibrillation, with some research showing that a low or moderate intake of caffeine, from coffee,  can have cardio-protective benefits. 

It is generally accepted that high intakes of caffeine will increase the risk of cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation especially if the caffeine is consumed in the form of energy drinks. 

However, as caffeine is a stimulant, people with atrial fibrillation would be best to avoid caffeine if they are symptomatic.

Can stress and anxiety cause atrial fibrillation?

Stress and anxiety are known triggers for atrial fibrillation. Stress and anxiety initiate an inflammatory reaction in the body, and with the increased levels of inflammatory cytokines affects the atrial myocardium (muscle of the heart) triggering atrial fibrillation.

Additionally stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis stimulating the release of glucocorticoid hormones as part of the stress response, which can sustain the systemic inflammatory response inducing atrial fibrillation.

Atrial flutter vs atrial fibrillation

In a normal functioning heart the top two chambers, the atria, contract to move blood down to the ventricles, then the ventricles contract to eject blood into circulation.  This process happens in a coordinated way with each contraction of the atria being followed by a contraction of the ventricles. 

In atrial fibrillation the contraction of the atria becomes rapid, erratic and ineffective because the atria are being stimulated by multiple ectopic cells all firing off at the same time leading to loss of coordination in the heart beat.

With atrial flutter the atria are still contracting in a rhythmic fashion, however they are contracting faster than the ventricles resulting in 2 or more atrial contractions to each ventricular contraction.

How can atrial fibrillation cause stroke?

Blood clots are one of the complications of atrial fibrillation that can lead to stroke.

In atrial fibrillation, the unregulated, chaotic and ineffective contraction of the heart's top two chambers (known as the atria) can cause blood to pool and form clots. There is a risk these clots can travel from the heart to the brain and cause a stroke.

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