A man passes out glasses of beer to his friends
Researchers say episodes of atrial fibrillation can be caused by binge drinking. Fresh Splash/Getty Images
  • Researchers say binge drinking can produce episodes of atrial fibrillation (AFib), even in people who aren’t diagnosed with the condition.
  • They came to their conclusion after examining Bluetooth-enabled Breathalyzers.
  • They said emergency department visits for AFib increased on days when excessive drinking was more common, such as New Year’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Experts say people diagnosed with AFib should limit their alcohol consumption.

More emergency department visits for atrial fibrillation (AFib) occur on days when excessive drinking is more common, according to a new study published on Jan. 12 in the journal Nature Cardiovascular Research.

Researchers examined data from 36,158 people who used Bluetooth-enabled Breathalyzers.

Researchers looked for days when these devices were used more often or had higher measurements. These days included New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Super Bowl Sunday, the initiation of daylight saving time, Father’s Day, Independence Day, the FIFA World Cup, and Christmas.

The scientists then compared this information to hospital emergency room visits with a diagnosis of AFib. They found a significantly elevated number of hospital visits on those days. The results were most significant for people over age 65. Many people in the emergency room were not previously diagnosed with AFib.

To ensure the increase was not widespread across heart rhythm disorders, researchers also looked at diagnoses of supraventricular tachycardia. They discovered the same relationship with alcohol did not exist.

They said the results showed alcohol was a risk factor exclusively for AFib.

“Our new data suggest that acute alcohol consumption in the general population is associated with a higher risk of an episode of atrial fibrillation, including a higher risk for the first episode among individuals never previously diagnosed with the condition,” Dr. Gregory Marcus, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and associate chief of cardiology for research at UCSF Health, said in a statement. “Worldwide, alcohol is the most popularly consumed drug. It is now clear that alcohol consumption is an important risk factor for AFib.”

What is AFib?

AFib is when the heart’s upper chambers beat irregularly and do not efficiently move the blood into the ventricles, according to the American Heart Association.

This can cause heart-related complications such as blood clots, stroke, or heart failure.

Nearly 3 million people in the United States live with AFib.

Common symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness
  • lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
  • confusion

Some people might not experience symptoms and might be unaware that they have the condition. Symptoms can mimic those of other heart conditions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019, 183,321 death certificates listed AFib. It was the underlying cause of death in 26,535 of those cases.

What is acute alcohol consumption?

The CDC defines moderate drinking as 1 drink a day for women and 1 to 2 drinks a day for men. One drink consists of 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

For most people, moderate drinking does not appear to be harmful to the heart, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine in Maryland.

Researchers looked at acute alcohol intoxication and binge drinking for their study.

Acute alcohol poisoning occurs after drinking too much in a short time and can, in some cases, lead to death.

Binge drinking is a pattern that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 or higher in a short time, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This typically occurs after a woman drinks 4 or more drinks or a man consumes 5 or more drinks within 2 hours.

Alcohol and AFib

After just one drink, the risk of having an AFib episode increases.

Data presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 2021 Scientific Session found that 1 drink increased the risk by twofold of an episode within the following 4 hours. The more alcohol consumed, the greater the risk.

“There are multiple proposed mechanisms for why alcohol consumption, chronic use, and binge drinking contribute to atrial fibrillation,” said Dr. Jim Liu, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Alcohol can trigger changes in the sympathetic nervous system with sudden increases in adrenaline levels, leading to AFib. It has also been linked to remodeling the heart chambers, specifically increasing the size of the left atrium, which is a risk factor for developing AFib.

“Inflammation could also be involved as binge drinking is associated with acute cardiac inflammation,” Liu told Healthline. “Finally, alcohol consumption could lead to other health conditions such as obesity and hypertension, which can predispose a person to AFib.”

If you stop drinking, will your AFib go away? Possibly.

A small 2020 study looked at whether abstaining from alcohol would lower the risk of AFib. Researchers reported that it did. When an AFib episode did occur, it took longer than for those in the control group of that study.

A 2017 study looked at long-term abstinence and found that for every decade without drinking, the risk of AFib lowered by 20 percent.

“Cessation of drinking is a critical step to reducing atrial fibrillation risk. It is never too late to stop. Once atrial fibrillation is triggered, it may or may not go away,” Dr. William Li, the founder and president of the Angiogenesis Foundation and the author of “Eat to Beat Disease,” told Healthline.

“Often, medications are needed to control atrial fibrillation. Depending on the situation, an intervention called an ablation may be needed,” he added. “AFib raises the risk for stroke. Anyone who has atrial fibrillation should stop drinking immediately. Even one drink can trigger it to return.”

How to limit drinking

While it could be beneficial to stop drinking altogether if you have atrial fibrillation, experts say it is essential to end heavy or binge drinking.

The following are some ways experts say you can work to limit your drinking:

  • Stick to one or two drinks at any one time.
  • Drink moderately over several days instead of drinking heavily on one day.
  • Set aside two or three alcohol-free days.
  • Alternate glasses of water with your alcoholic drinks.
  • Always eat something before drinking.

If you believe you have a drinking problem or are struggling to reduce or stop drinking, reach out for help.

Some national hotlines:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), 800-839-1686
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 800-622-2255
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 800-662-4357

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