Most of the time, you’re probably not paying any attention to your heartbeat. Sure, you know that your heart is constantly pumping blood throughout your body. You may even track heart rate, along with other vitals, through an Apple Watch or Fitbit. But you’re probably not physically feeling the beat of your heart or giving it much attention.
If you’re having heart palpitations, however, that’s another story. Although causes vary, in some cases, mealtimes or certain foods or drinks can trigger palpitations when eating.
“Palpitations can mean different things to different people,” says Dr. Jay Sengupta, a cardiac electrophysiologist with the Allina Health Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. “But in general, it typically refers to some awareness of one’s heartbeat, and it could mean that their heartbeat is skipping, or it could be racing,” says Sengupta, who treats heart rhythm disorders.
Or — besides the classic feeling that the heart is skipping a beat — palpitations may also be described by those experiencing them as the heart beating heavily or abnormally, adds Dr. Evelina Grayver, director of the women’s heart health at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York.
Heart palpitations can sometimes happen after eating. “When you eat, the body increases blood flow to the digestive system, which can lead to an increase in heart rate,” says Dr. Allison Zielinski, a cardiologist and co-director of the sports cardiology program at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute in Chicago.
While the experience of palpitations differs from one person to the next, you might feel:
— Like your heart is skipping a beat.
— A fluttering sensation in your chest.
— A pounding or throbbing sensation — like your heart is beating too hard.
— An abnormally fast, or racing, heartbeat.
— A “flip-flopping” sensation, as if your heart is “turning over” in your chest.
By comparison, you may feel your heart thumping harder during or after a hard run, in step with the effort you put into your workout. But with palpitations, it’s the irregularity of the beat — it’s “off” from what you’re used to — that really stands out. Keep in mind, though, that palpitations can occur after exercise too.
[SEE: Signs of a Bad Heart: Don’t Overlook These Cardiac Symptoms.]
Is It Really a Palpitation?
Several eating-related occurrences can be mistaken for heart palpitations, says Dr. Daniel Alyesh, a cardiac electrophysiologist with South Denver Cardiology Associates in Colorado.
“For instance, after eating, you can get heartburn, you can get indigestion — all of those things can be confused with a palpitation,” says Alyesh, who is also vice chair of Heart Rhythm TV, the Heart Rhythm Society’s media outlet. “But palpitations are sensations: The heart is flip-flopping in the chest, a sensation that we’re skipping a beat, that the heart is racing.” By contrast, heartburn is more of a burning sensation behind the breastbone.
Palpitations are typically benign, especially if they occur infrequently. “Feeling a skipped beat on occasion is fairly common and usually not dangerous,” Zielinski says. That includes chest palpitations after eating.
[See: The Best Diets for Your Heart.]
When to Be Concerned About Palpitations
Frequency is a factor in how serious palpitations might be. “If you have them from time to time, it’s OK, as in: ‘Here and there I feel a little off, having palpitations with eating every few weeks,'” Alyesh says. “But if it’s happening on a regular basis, like several times a week or almost every time you eat, I’d start getting a little more suspicious.”
While low-frequency palpitations might be normal, it’s important to know when to see a doctor for palpitations. If palpitations are sustained or increase in frequency, they may be a sign of a more serious medical issue, like arrhythmia, and deserve medical attention. This underlying electrical problem of the heart, which affects the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat, can cause palpitations.
“Symptoms that can be a sign of something more concerning include sudden and prolonged heart racing at rest, sustained irregular heart rate or palpitations accompanied by dizziness, chest pain or shortness of breath,” Zielinski says. “Sudden loss of consciousness, also called syncope, can in certain cases be due to an abnormal heart rhythm, so it requires evaluation.”
Experts emphasize that it’s best to err on the side of caution if you have any concerns, irrespective of how frequently the palpitations occur.
“While many symptoms of palpitations are benign, our concern is heightened if the patient has alarming features with their symptoms, preexisting heart problems, older age or other medical conditions that might increase the risk of more dangerous arrhythmias,” Zielinski says.
For instance, coronary artery disease, thyroid disease and obstructive sleep apnea may increase heart arrhythmia risk. For those who are pregnant, palpitations can bring up extra concerns.
[SEE: 11 Foods Not to Mix With Prescription Medications.]
What Causes Heart Palpitations After Eating?
As you’re eating and digesting, responses from two components of your body’s autonomic nervous system can affect your heartbeat, Alyesh explains:
— Fight or flight. This response arises from the sympathetic nervous system, which reacts to a variety of stimulants — including substances like caffeine. “It stimulates the release of adrenaline and that can lead to palpitations as your heart accelerates, causing abnormal heartbeats or abnormal heart rhythms,” Alyesh says.
— Rest or digest. This response arises from the parasympathetic nervous system, which ramps up during digestion. “That can stimulate abnormal heart rhythms,” Alyesh says. “And the one that really comes to mind is atrial fibrillation.”
Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormal heart rhythm in the U.S., Alyesh notes. “For the most part, if it’s managed well, it can be relatively benign,” he says. “But it does carry within it a risk of stroke and it needs to be addressed with a doctor if you carry that diagnosis.”
Atrial Fibrillation Awareness
For adults who may have sustained arrhythmia, a concerning form is an atrial fibrillation, or AFib.
“Atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm that is associated with an increased risk of stroke, is an important cause of palpitations that is paramount not to miss,” Zielinski says. “It is rare for young healthy people to develop atrial fibrillation, but risk increases with age as with other medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease — such as coronary artery disease, heart failure or valvular heart problems — excessive alcohol use, diabetes and obesity.”
That’s all the more reason to recognize heart palpitations symptoms. And if you experience any of the following symptoms with palpitations, call 911:
— Feeling faint, or loss of consciousness (syncope).
— Chest pain or discomfort.
— Shortness of breath.
— Rapid heart rate with dizziness.
— Prolonged, unexplained heart racing at rest.
— Sustained irregular heart rate.
In such cases, it’s critical to get immediate medical attention, because there are life-threatening causes of heart palpitations.
Why Do I Have Palpitations After Eating?
Finding out your individual triggers could reduce heart palpitations. Keeping track of what you eat and drink and making adjustments can help lessen the chances of experiencing the uncomfortable sensation.
For food-related palpitations, “if you are noticing anything new or different, it is always a good idea to notify your doctor so that she may assess whether or not it is something that requires further investigation,” Zielinski says.
With that in mind, there are some foods and drinks you might consider avoiding — or at least limiting. Spicy foods, higher-fat and higher-sugar foods are common triggers for heart palpitations among patients who have them, Alyesh finds.
Common triggers include:
— Caffeine in excess.
— Carb-rich foods.
Caffeine in excess
Having your morning coffee — depending on how many times you fill your mug — is probably fine and won’t send your heart fluttering. In fact, some research has undercut the notion that caffeine consumption causes palpitations or contributes to arrhythmias, like ectopy, which are small changes in a heartbeat that is otherwise normal.
“Pretty much if you have one or two cups of coffee, then you really should not be having those palpitations,” Grayver says.
But while there’s no universal threshold when it comes to how much coffee triggers palpitations, drinking more than a moderate amount of coffee could cause palpitations for some consumers.
“Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others, and it may make them feel jittery or feel like their heart is racing,” Zielinski notes. “In that case, they may want to avoid it.”
And downing other caffeine-containing substances might also send your heart fluttering, not to mention drive up blood pressure.
For example, many energy drinks are loaded with caffeine and other caffeine-like substances, such as taurine, that also give you a jolt, especially if you buy it in a supersized can or have more than one. While there are many variations in caffeine content, some energy drinks contain as much caffeine as several cups of coffee.
“Energy drinks, which can contain much higher amounts of caffeine than coffee or soda, as well as other stimulants like guarana, can, in rare cases, cause dangerous arrhythmias,” Zielinski says. “This risk is greater when ingested in large amounts, or paired with other stimulants or exercise. People with known arrhythmias should probably avoid them.” Guarana, a plant native to the Amazon, is a strong medicinal stimulant that’s often used in energy drinks.
It’s not even necessarily the pep caffeine puts in our step, but its diuretic property that’s problematic — dehydration can cause palpitations, Grayver notes. So in addition to having coffee in moderation, it’s important to drink plenty of water.
Other caffeine sources like tea and chocolate — which tends to have far less caffeine than coffee, but can be loaded with added sugar — also contribute to palpitations. And, again, that’s especially true if they’re consumed in large quantities.
As mentioned above, sugar can also be a culprit. Consuming lots of sugar can cause the body to release the hormone epinephrine, or adrenaline, which increases heart rate.
While there’s no precise threshold to avoid palpitations, specifically, the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines recommend getting no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugar. That equates to 12 teaspoons, 50 grams or 200 calories from added sugar, or roughly the equivalent of a piece of chocolate cake. A can of regular soda has about 126 calories from added sugar.
Although moderate drinking — no more than one drink for women and two for men daily — is generally the upper threshold set for good health, you could possibly still experience heart palpitations below that. And for people who have arrhythmias and experience palpitations, alcohol is one of the most common triggers. “There is a strong association between alcohol and atrial fibrillation,” Zielinski points out.
Imbibing can have negative heart effects overall. “Alcohol, especially at higher levels, is cardiotoxic to a degree,” Alyesh says. “It’s a pretty potent stimulant of palpitations, and palpitations that are caused by abnormal heart rhythms.” Palpitation patterns vary. “You can have it when you drink too much alcohol on the spot, or it can actually happen the next day,” he says. “At home, people notice: ‘I went out, I enjoyed myself and the next day I paid for it.’ Alcohol can stimulate any abnormal heart rhythm and very much so atrial fibrillation.”
In the health field, the phrase “holiday heart” is sometimes used, but the phenomenon can happen any day of the year. “The term ‘holiday heart’ refers to increased palpitations after a binge of alcohol, which is usually used in reference to atrial fibrillation after heavy drinking,” Zielinski says. “For people with atrial fibrillation, alcohol can increase the risk that they may have an episode. In general, drinking higher amounts of alcohol increases the risk of developing atrial fibrillation.”
Processed carbs can contribute to palpitations as well. That’s because most carbs are broken down into glucose, or sugar, when they’re digested. As a result, they can drive up blood-sugar levels, just like table sugar. If a person has low blood sugar, the swing or spike in blood sugar level is more significant with a carb-rich meal. Blood sugar changes can cause rapid heartbeat or other heart rate variations.
The easy availability of high-carb foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner — from pastries to white bread sandwiches to pasta — doesn’t help. For that reason, experts say it’s important to be mindful of what you’re eating and to eat carbs in moderation.
“Any large meal can raise the heart rate,” Zielinski says. “Carbohydrates raise blood sugar and levels and trigger insulin release — monitoring carbohydrate is particularly important for people with diabetes. For heart and vascular health, we recommend a diet high in fruits and vegetables, some healthy fats — fish, olive oil, avocado and nuts — and lean protein, and lower in refined carbohydrates, salt and saturated fats.”
This compound is found in various foods from aged cheese and red wine to cured meats, sauerkraut and soy sauce.
Tyramine is a derivative of the compound phenol. When more of the compound is released, or taken into the body, it drives up blood pressure, which can increase heart rate and cause heart palpitations.
Keeping on Top of Palpitations
Because heavy meals can also contribute to heart palpitations, be mindful not only of what you eat but how much. A food journal can help you do so.
“Keep a food diary,” Sengupta suggests, if you’re concerned what you’re having is contributing to heart palpitations. Pay special attention to substances such as caffeine, alcohol and sugary foods and drinks you’re consuming to see if there’s any association between your diet and palpitations. Record not just what you eat, but how you feel, including whether you experience palpitations after eating or drinking certain things.
Then make sure to follow up with your doctor about any concerns you have regarding palpitations, and discuss what role diet may play.
There is a lot to be said about trying to identify food and lifestyle factors because these are modifiable, Sengupta says. Not only carving out a few foods but making wholesale changes may help. For example, improving your overall diet, such as following a heart-healthy eating pattern like the Mediterranean diet, can reduce your risk of developing an arrhythmia.
A more heart-friendly lifestyle that incorporates a well-rounded diet and regular activity can help with preventing palpitations and in managing a diagnosed arrhythmia. Experts emphasize that in the absence of or in addition to other treatment approaches, like medication to treat arrhythmias, making these adjustments can help reduce palpitations.
If you continue to have frequent heart palpitations, your health care provider may suggest a cardiac workup that might include wearing a portable heart monitor. If you use personal wearables with EKG capabilities, doctors will also evaluate those tracings. An ultrasound can shed light on whether abnormal rhythms may be linked to structural heart abnormalities, Alyesh says. And you could be referred to a cardiac specialist like an electrophysiologist for a more in-depth evaluation to rule out other potential culprits like obstructive sleep apnea.
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Heart Palpitations After Eating: When to Be Concerned and Foods to Avoid originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 02/28/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.
Correction 02/22/23: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated what tyramine is.