Suffering from hypertension? “Take a beta-blocker.” Battling heart failure? “Here’s a beta-blocker.” Experiencing heart palpitations? “Try a beta-blocker.” Does this ring a bell?
For years, beta-blockers have been hailed as the go-to remedy for numerous heart conditions, with about 30 million Americans currently using them. But when it comes to addressing cardiac arrhythmias, are beta-blockers genuinely effective?
Many people with premature atrial contractions (PACs) mistakenly believe that beta-blockers can cure heart palpitations. So it’s high time we take a closer look at beta-blockers’ role in managing arrhythmias like PACs and reassess their effectiveness.
What are PACs?
Premature atrial contractions, or PACs for short, are unusual heartbeats that start in the upper part of the heart, called the atria. These extra beats hijack the heart’s natural pacemaker, disturbing the regular heart rhythm.
PACs are often described as a skipped beat, an extra hard beat, or fluttering. While often dismissed as benign, PACs indicate something is awry in the body.
Occasional PACs are not uncommon and rarely require treatment. However, if someone experiences multiple PACs a day or is accompanied by symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, or fatigue, doctors often prescribe beta-blockers.
What are beta-blockers?
Beta-blockers are drugs designed to help our bodies handle stress by interacting with specific hormones in our nervous system. Commonly known as beta-adrenergic blocking agents, their primary role is to block adrenaline—a hormone known for making our hearts pound during tense moments.
Examples of beta-blockers include metoprolol, atenolol, carvedilol and bisoprolol.
Beta-blockers slow the heart rate down and lower blood pressure.
Beta-blockers and PACs
Heart palpitations, such as PACs, are often triggered by stress. Since beta-blockers quite literally block stress hormones such as adrenaline, it stands to reason that beta-blockers may make the heart less responsive to stress’s effects.
Moreover, beta blockers lower blood pressure and heart rate, thus reducing the workload of the heart. Theoretically, if the heart doesn’t have to work as hard, it frees up energy to keep it beating normally. A less excitable heart is more likely to remain in normal sinus rhythm.
Unfortunately, little research supports the use of beta-blockers for heart arrhythmias such as PACs. In fact, in some cases, beta-blockers may be pro-arrhythmic, meaning they worsen heart palpitations.
Beta-blockers aren’t the only medications used to treat premature atrial contractions. Doctors sometimes prescribe calcium channel blockers or antiarrhythmics to treat heart palpitations, such as PACs.
What’s the problem with beta-blockers?
Stress hormones serve an essential physiological role in our bodies. Humans rely on that beta surge of adrenaline, which benefits the body in many ways. Unfortunately, suppressing this natural response contributes to the many side effects of beta-blockers, which include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Low libido
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Sleep disturbances
- Erectile dysfunction
- Weight gain
More serious side effects of beta-blockers include bradycardia (low heart rate) and hypotension (low blood pressure). In addition, in some cases, beta-blockers cause heart block and worsening heart failure.
Do beta-blockers cure PACs?
In short, the answer is usually “no”. When you slow down the heart, PACs often get worse. I liken the situation to the carousel at the amusement park. The ride slows down, it is easy to get on. The ride spins fast, hard (and dangerous to get on. Heart slows down, extra beats from PACs jump in.
A study of nearly 45,000 heart patients concluded that beta-blockers don’t reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, or death.
If beta-blockers don’t cure PACs, what does?
The only way to permanently cure premature atrial contractions is to identify and address the root cause of the inflammation that is causing the PACs in the first place.
Possible causes of PACs include:
- Poor diet deficient in seafood and ethically sourced animals
- Dehydration or electrolyte imbalances
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Lack of exposure to sunlight
- Inadequate sleep (and sleep apnea)
- Excessive stress
- Toxins in the body
- Subluxations in the spine (see your chiropractor)
- Poor dental health
- Medication side effects
- Underlying disease
A recent study found coffee does NOT increase the risk of PACs. I think quality coffee like our Cardiology Coffee actually decreases PACS.
Often, PACs can be cured by identifying the cause of premature atrial contractions and taking action to address the problem.
While there is a time and place for pharmaceuticals, it’s essential to acknowledge that many of these drugs, including beta-blockers, have significant side effects. Therefore, whenever possible, they should be used as a last resort.
If you are taking a beta blocker for PACs or any cardiovascular issue, consult one of our expert medical providers. Together you can decide whether it’s possible to wean off your medications.