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The crux of our research was oriented around proving that lifestyle changes, specifically a plant-based diet, stress management, exercise and support can improve blood flow to the heart and reverse coronary artery disease.

Lifestyle changes, like the ones made in the Ornish program, can affect atrial fibrillation.

We have not conducted research specifically about reversal of atrial fibrillation, which is a quivering abnormal heartbeat that can create blood clots that can cause strokes. Theoretically, if you are able to reverse the cause, you should be able to reverse the condition.  This is true when people have atrial fibrillation due to abnormal wiring. If you cut the wires (literally burned with an electrode) the heart goes back to beating normal.  This is also true when someone has too much thyroid hormone and the heart is over stimulated.  Remove the over stimulation (the excess thyroid hormone) and the heart goes back to beating normal. The challenge with atrial fibrillation is that it can have more than one cause, some of which are related to lifestyle and others of which are not.

There was a study done in Australia that looked at 150 obese people with symptomatic atrial fibrillation.  They put them into two groups: one got intensive lifestyle modification (even more modest then the Ornish program) and the other usual care. The study followed them for 15 months.  At the end, each participant was put on a week long continuous heart monitor looking for atrial fibrillation episodes. The group that that had made the lifestyle changes had 80% fewer episodes of atrial fibrillation and the average episode was 50% shorter.

So the answer to your question is that lifestyle changes, like the ones made in the Ornish program, can affect atrial fibrillation.  In atrial fibrillation, the key is making sure that any treatable causes, like too much thyroid hormone, are treated. It is also important to discuss the use of blood thinning medicines to lessen the risk of stroke with your physician.  After that, make the lifestyle changes that are proven to help increase the blood flow to your heart, help you lose weight and feel better.

Reference: Weight and Risk Factor Modification: Impact on Atrial Fibrillation Circulation Volume 126(21) Supplement, 20 November 2012

Contributed by

Ben Brown, MD
Medical Director, Ornish Lifestyle Medicine

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