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Can Herbal Supplements Cause Heart Arrhythmias?

December 29, 2022

Herbal supplements seem like a natural health boost, but could they put your health at risk?

Cardiologists nationwide report an increase in heart arrhythmias – also known as an irregular heartbeat – in people under 30 who are taking certain common herbal supplements like fish oil.

So is it time to shelve your go-to supplements or are they safe to take? Moulin Chokshi, MD, an electrophysiologist with the Hartford HealthCare Heart & Vascular Institute, discusses the possible link between irregular heart rhythms and herbal supplements.

> Do you have an abnormal heart rhythm? Connect with a specialist today

What supplements should I watch out for?

Recent studies have linked the following supplements to heart arrhythmia:

  • Fish oil. This supplement can reduce triglycerides and improve HDL (good cholesterol). But multiple studies found an increased risk of a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation.
  • Ephedra. It was banned in 2004 for causing arrhythmia, heart attack, seizures and death, but can still be found in some supplements.
  • Bitter orange. The National Institutes of Health note a connection between this supplement and irregular heartbeat. There have also been reports of fainting, heart attacks and strokes when taken with other medications.

“Although these supplements may have possible health benefits, there are clear concerns that some supplements can cause irregular heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation,” Dr. Chokshi says.

Are heart arrhythmias dangerous?

Heart arrhythmias happen when your heart is out of rhythm. Sometimes, it may feel like your heart is beating too fast or slow, or like it skipped or added a beat.

If you have an irregular heartbeat, it could be dangerous or totally harmless. If you’re concerned, the best thing to do is speak to a doctor.

> Related: Eight Signs You Might Have a Heart Arrhythmia

What about atrial fibrillation?

The most common type of sustained arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation (or aFib for short) – a condition characterized by rapid heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath and weakness.

“Atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm from the atrium, is very common in the elderly but is frequently diagnosed in young patients as well. Roughly 800,000 Americans under the age of 40 have atrial fibrillation, so it can be hard to accurately track incidence of this disease,” says Dr. Chokshi.

Although aFib has been linked with fish oil use, Dr. Chokshi said it can be hard to tell if there’s in increase in aFib since tools like smart watches can now help diagnose the condition.

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What advice should I follow when choosing herbal supplements?

Unlike medications, herbal supplements are not subject to review or approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Many people believe natural remedies are safer than prescription medications, but there haven’t been large studies that confirm whether they decrease or increase your risk of atrial fibrillation or other arrhythmias.

“That’s why it is important that anyone thinking about adding a supplement to their routine talk with their primary care provider first,” Dr. Chokshi says.

The recommendation, he adds, is for all ages, especially younger people who may be influenced by social media trends.

“Often, patients start supplements based on recommendations from family, friends or social media. It’s important to confirm the choice with a healthcare professional because of potential risks,” Dr. Chokshi says.