Does salt increase risk of AFib?

September is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Awareness Month. AFib is a heart condition that can greatly increase your risk of a stroke.

Now, when it comes to prevention, a new study found that people who don't add salt to their meals are 18 percent less likely to develop AFib. 

Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa, an interventional cardiologist at Heart Hospital of Austin and Austin Heart, joined FOX 7 Austin's Rebecca Thomas to discuss.


Rebecca Thomas: So, first off, let's talk about what is atrial fibrillation, and what are the symptoms?

Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa: Sure. So atrial fibrillation, it's an irregular heart rhythm. The simplest way to think about it is that the heart has electrical wiring. And normally, when a heart is functioning electrically normal, there's one signal that travels down that electrical pathway. In atrial fibrillation, you have a bunch of focus, a bunch of spots in the heart that are firing. And so the top two chambers of the heart are very erratic. And so if you think about it, the top two chambers normally should squeeze as that electrical impulse passes through them. In someone with atrial fibrillation, they're kind of just fluttering around. Now, the symptoms that atrial fibrillation can lead to are kind of what you would think, some chest pain, some shortness of breath, some easy fatigue. And some patients can actually feel their heart racing because patients with atrial fibrillation are more prone to have episodes of fast heart rates.

Rebecca Thomas: So this study found that people who did not add salt to their diet had a decreased chance of getting afib. How does increased salt intake affect atrial fibrillation and other heart disease as well?

Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa: So I think it's important first to differentiate between, you know, two words that we use interchangeably very often. One is sodium and the second is salt. Sodium is a mineral that's essential for bodily functions. We need it to live. Salt is the actual crystal that's composed of sodium chloride. That's what we add to our foods. Now, in order for our body to function normally, we need about 2.5 grams of sodium per day. One teaspoon of salt is about one gram of sodium. So if you think about that's how you can kind of put it into perspective. Now, when you eat or when you consume too much sodium, what can happen is sodium causes your blood vessels to retain liquid. Retaining liquid can cause damage to the inside of the blood vessels in your body and can cause your heart to feel increased stress. When your heart has increased stress, what it tends to do, it dilates and it dilated. Heart leads to these irregular heart rhythms.

Rebecca Thomas: So obviously, when you go to the store, you see low sodium, you know, low salt, what not. But how can we make sure that we are not getting too much added salt in our diets?

Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa: So the simplest ways I think you mentioned are to buy those, you know, anything that's canned has a lot of sodium. And so I think the simplest way to minimize your sodium intake is, if you absolutely have to buy canned foods, buy the ones that are labeled low sodium. Even if you buy those cans that are labeled as low sodium. What I do, for instance, is if I buy a can of beans is I'll wash them. I'll just wash them in the sink before I actually put them in to whatever it is that I'm cooking. You know, I think buying fresh poultry, fresh chicken is another way. Instead of buying chicken that's that's smoked or chicken, that's you know, that's already like the rotisserie chickens, for instance. Sometimes those can have a lot of sodium.

Rebecca Thomas: Okay. So basically, try to eat whole foods and not processed foods that tend to have those added salts.

Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa: Correct.

Rebecca Thomas: Alright, we are out of time. Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa, thank you so much for sharing your time and your expertise with us.

Dr. Joaquin Cigarroa: It's a pleasure. Thank you so much.