What It Means When Your Heart Skips a Beat—and 9 Things That Cause It
Just about anything could make your heart skip a beat, but doctors gave us the most common reasons.
When your heart “skips a beat” it may feel like a brief flutter or flip-flop in your chest. In fact, that skipped beat feeling is actually an extra beat medically defined as a premature beat. There are two types of premature beats, a premature atrial contraction in the top chamber of the heart and a premature ventricular contraction from the lower heart chamber, which pumps the blood to other parts of your body. Premature beats occur when electrical impulses from your heart misfire earlier than expected. The good news is that most premature beats don’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with your heart’s structure. But if they do become frequent or are accompanied with shortness of breath or chest pain, visit your doctor to make sure it’s nothing serious. “Neither of these are considered dangerous. Although there are exceptions, these are typically benign,” says Ayman Hussein, MD, a cardiac electrophysiology specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “It comes down to symptoms and quality of life.” Try these things that heart doctors do to protect their own hearts.
Too much coffee
That cup of coffee does more than just give your senses a jolt in the morning—it gives your heart one too. Caffeine stimulates the stress hormones, like adrenaline, to rapidly pump through your body, which exacerbates abnormal heart rhythms, like skipped beats. “It’s not that caffeine is causing it to skip, [caffeine] is just making it more obvious, more prevalent, and making it show up and cause symptoms,” says Dr. Hussein. Try cutting back on your intake by drinking decaf after your first to see if that helps regulate your heartbeat. Or try switching to tea and see if that makes a difference.
Stress is never good for your health, especially when it comes to the heart. When you’re stressed, your brain activates its fight-or-flight response thanks to a surge of adrenaline; this helps your body react quickly to the stressor. In response to this sudden increase in stress hormones, like cortisol, your heart may skip a beat because it’s working harder to increase the blood supply to your muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Even getting spooked by a friend can get that adrenaline coursing through your veins, which may make you feel a sudden pause in your chest. “Stress isn’t creating the problem, it’s making the problem more prominent,” says Dr. Hussein. “Stress hormones are known to correlate with these types of extra beats.” Stress not only hurts your heart, it can also throw your immune and digestive system off.
Too much alcohol
Alcohol is known to send your heart’s electrical rhythm on the fritz and raise the adrenaline in your blood. The rise in these stress hormones, in turn, increases the free fatty acids in your blood, which are known to contribute to irregular heart rhythms. and adrenaline in your blood, which may cause a premature beat. Typically, these symptoms only last for a few seconds or disappear within 24 hours as the alcohol leaves your body. But you should seek a doctor, if these premature beats are frequent. Excessive amounts of alcohol can precipitate atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart beat disorder that can lead to stroke, heart failure, or a heart attack, if not diagnosed and treated properly. Moderation is key so limit yourself to only a few glasses each week instead of slugging back three glasses a day. Try these simple tips for drinking alcohol a little less.
Lack of sleep
A sleepless night leaves both you and your heart feeling tired and miserable the next day. “When you don’t get a good quality of sleep you feel irritated,” says Dr. Hussein. “The body tries to react to the lack of sleep by increasing certain hormones to deal with the stress. The stress hormones can trigger those extra beats.” For a quick fix, make sure you get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Writing away your worries and skipping the alcohol-induced nightcap are just a couple ways you can help give your body a full night’s rest.
Pregnancy, menopause, and thyroid issues can all create a lot of changes in the body because your hormones are out of whack. Extra heartbeats may start emerging as an increase in blood volume pumps through an expectant mother’s body or when your hormones are on a rollercoaster ride during menopause. An overactive or underactive thyroid can also throw your hormones into a tailspin. “It’s not dangerous, but it’s annoying,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, attending cardiologist and director of Women’s Heart Health program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement. “It’s all about pressure on the heart.” Fluctuating hormones, such as a hyperactive thyroid, amps up your heart rate, and a dip in estrogen from menopause stiffens up your blood vessels and heart muscle, all of which place an extra strain on your heart. Some moms-to-be may even develop pregnancy-related cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart weakens and causes skipped beats. For those instances, a doctor uses an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) to determine if it’s benign or a structural problem. These hormonal imbalances do more than just mess with your heart, it may also cause you to lose your sex drive.
Your exercise regimen
The harder you pound the pavement during your evening run, the higher your heart rate and blood pressure will go. And thus, a premature beat may pop up. People with genetic heart abnormalities must take precautions when exercising, especially if they are predisposed to premature beats at a rapid rate from both chambers of the heart. Overexertion and an abnormal heart do not mix and may put your health at risk. “You read reports about people dropping dead during marathons. That’s a ventricular arrhythmia from the bottom of the heart,” says James T. Willerson, MD, president emeritus at the Texas Heart Institute. “[They] exercise above a level that their heart could tolerate, especially if one is older or has underlying heart disease. It would not allow one to have a rapid heart rate for a sustained period of time.” You may also want to take a note from cardiologists and remove the processed foods and diet soda from your diet for a healthier heart.
A mineral deficiency
Low levels of essential minerals, such as potassium and magnesium, may impact your heart health. Potassium helps keep all your bodily functions in check by acting as an electrolyte to keep your cells, tissues, organs, and heart’s electrical system in working order. Magnesium helps protect your heart from heart attack risks, strengthens muscles and tissues, and lowers your blood pressure. If you notice your heart skipping, your doctor may want to test your mineral levels. “We try to correct what we believe to be the responsible mechanism,” says Dr. Willerson. “Even if it’s low potassium, we have to give them medication.” Keep an eye out for these signs of a magnesium deficiency.
Getting enough water throughout the day keeps your heart beating at a healthy pace. Neglecting to replenish your body with fluids could cause your sodium and potassium levels to drop, which throws your electrolyte balance out of whack. Without a sufficient supply of electrolytes, your heart’s electrical signals could go haywire and cause your heart to skip a beat. Sugar cravings and mood swings are just a couple other signs you may be dehydrated.
An underlying heart condition
Although most extra beats are harmless and easily fixed, beware of premature beats that occur frequently, are coupled, or beat three times in a row at a fast rhythm, all of which may signal a hidden health problem and pose an extra danger to your health. High blood pressure, heart disease, and atrial fibrillation are just a few health conditions that premature beats could be a sign of. “Most of the time they are benign, but we don’t miss want to miss those patients who have a structural problem of the heart or multiple extra beats from other areas of the heart,” says Dr. Hussein. “Everyone needs to be assessed by a healthcare specialist.” Frequent premature beats aren’t the only sign of heart trouble, watch out for these symptoms as well.