About 36 million times a year the heart beats exactly when it's meant to – which is why it's so unnerving when it occasionally loses its rhythm. Fortunately, there are ways to stop palpitations almost as soon as they start. Better still, you can prevent them from happening in the first place by practising stress-reduction techniques, asking your doctor to check any medications you are taking, and adding certain foods and supplements known to benefit the heart to your diet.

 

Immediate palpitation remedies

As soon as you notice an irregular heartbeat, sit down and prop your feet up. Breathe slowly and deeply, letting your abdomen expand with each inhalation. If you focus on slow, steady breathing, your heartbeat will probably return to its normal rhythm straight away.

If the fluttering continues, try Valsalva's manoeuvre. Pinch your nose, close your mouth and try to exhale. Because you can't – your nose and mouth are closed – you will strain as if having a bowel movement. The brief rise in blood pressure that occurs as a result should help to reset your heart.

Cough forcefully. As with Valsalva's manoeuvre, coughing increases the pressure inside your chest. Sometimes that's all you need to restore your heart to its regular rhythm. Or blow up a balloon, which has a similar effect.

Take a few gulps of cold water. No one knows exactly why this helps, but some people have instantaneous results. One theory is that the swallowed water causes your oesophagus to press against your heart, and that ‘nudge’ restores the rhythm.

Alternatively, splash ice-cold water onto your face. The shock might be enough to do the trick.

 

Relaxation techniques to reduce palpitations

If you are experiencing palpitations, it is quite likely that stress is to blame. In fact, palpitations can be the body's way of telling you that your stress level has exceeded the safe range. Meditating helps to get stress levels back to normal. Try to set aside 30 minutes a day to relax and allow your mind to unwind.

Calm your mind with aromatherapy. Sprinkle a few drops of relaxing lavender oil onto a handkerchief and inhale the lovely scent. Or try rubbing 2 drops of bitter orange oil (also called Seville) onto your chest or adding a little to bathwater.

Get at least 7 hours sleep each night. Being tired can be another trigger for odd heartbeats.

 

Medication that can cause palpitations

Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs can cause palpitations, so read the package insert. It might say something like, ‘do not use this product if you have heart disease or high blood pressure’. Or it might give a specific warning about the drug's effect on heartbeat. Pay particular attention to over-the-counter cold and allergy medications that contain decongestants. One common ingredient that is frequently implicated is pseudoephedrine.

Some bronchodilators for asthma, such as salbutamol (Ventolin), can increase the risk of palpitations. So can anti-histamines such as loratadine (Claratyne). If you've been taking these, ask your doctor about changing to different medications.

Avoid any diet remedy or supplement containing ephedra (also called ma-huang). Products containing ephedra are used to promote weight loss and boost energy levels. However, ephedra can sharply increase your risk of irregular heartbeat or palpitations – sometimes with dangerous consequences.

 

Lifestyle changes to prevent palpitations

Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 or 4 times a week. Walking, running and tennis are all excellent choices. Just don't become too focused on bettering your previous time or beating an opponent – that will only increase stress. Exercise at a pace that allows you comfortably to carry on a conversation.

Warm up for 10 minutes before each work-out and be sure to do wind-down stretches for 10 minutes afterwards.

Any food that causes sudden fluctuations in your blood sugar level can contribute to palpitations. If you're a sweet food addict and you have palpitations, try cutting back on sugar. You may find that palpitations lessen or stop altogether.

Many people claim that cutting back on sweets will help to prevent palpitations.

 

Supplements to stop palpitations

Many people with irregular heart rhythms have low levels of magnesium, so try eating more foods rich in magnesium, such as whole grains, beans and pulses, dark green leafy vegetables, and shellfish. If you want to try magnesium supplements, take 300mg a day. (Caution: Do not take magnesium if you have pre-existing kidney disease.)

Take coenzyme Q10. This naturally occurring substance, sold over the counter in pill form, helps to keep your heart rhythm regular. Take according to the manufacturer's instructions. It can take a couple of months to see any benefits.

If you don't eat much fish, take 2-3g a day of fish oil, which is high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

The amino acid taurine, available from pharmacies and health food shops, helps to quell irregular electrical impulses in the heart. Take according to the manufacturer's instructions.

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