Science Questions with Surprising Answers
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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

When someone's heart skips a beat, what is wrong with his heart?

Category: Health      Published: August 12, 2014

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

bottles of herbal pills
Many herbal supplements contain ingredients that cause palpitations in a perfectly healthy heart. Similarly, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and some prescription drugs can also cause palpitations. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

There is most likely nothing wrong with his heart. But a person with a heart that frequently skips beats should talk with his doctor to be safe. If the person has already told his doctor and has had some heart tests done that came back normal, then there is probably nothing wrong with his heart. The feeling of your heart skipping a beat or suddenly pounding, racing, fluttering, or throbbing is called palpitations. Perfectly healthy people have palpitations a few times in their life. If a person is having palpitations several times an hour, there is likely an underlying disorder or chemical stimulant causing them. Frequent palpitations can be caused by a wide variety of factors, many of which have little to do directly with the heart. Just because a heart test such as an echocardiogram comes back normal does not mean that you are imagining the palpitations. It just means that their cause lies outside the heart.

Common causes of palpitations in generally healthy people include:

If your heart tests come back normal and you are generally healthy, you will need to identify which of the above factors is causing your palpitations and eliminate it. For instance, start by going off (or at least reducing) coffee, tea, colas, and "energy" drinks for a week and see if the palpitations go away. If they do, you know that caffeine was the culprit. Permanently reduce or avoid caffeine, and the palpitations will stay away in this case. If you have cut out all sources of caffeine and the frequent palpitations do not go away, move on to the next possible factor. For instance, cut out smoking and drinking alcohol and see if that helps. Or, take a look at all of the prescription medicine and over-the-counter medicine that you take and see if palpitations are one of the side effects. Or, try developing a set daily routine of sleep, exercise, regular meals and regular drinking of water to see if your palpitations are caused by low blood sugar, dehydration, or stress.

Also be aware that many herbal supplements are marketed as entirely natural and harmless, but contain herbs that cause palpitations. If you are taking an herbal pill that is called "ginseng", then it is obvious that the pill contains a palpitation-inducing agent. But many herbal supplements are blends of herbs and have vague names such as "All Greens" or "Colon Detox". Such names give you no clue as to what the pills actually contain. You will need to go through the ingredients list to figure it out (if an herbal supplement does not come with an ingredients list, you would do best to avoid it, as it is likely a scam). See if any of the herbs listed below are one of the ingredients of any of the herbal pills you take.

Herbal supplement ingredients that can cause palpitations:

The Mayo Clinic states:

Although it often feels like a skipped heartbeat, a premature heartbeat is actually an extra beat. Even though you may feel an occasional premature beat, it seldom means you have a more serious problem. Still, a premature beat can trigger a longer lasting arrhythmia - especially in people with heart disease. Premature heartbeats are commonly caused by stimulants, such as caffeine from coffee, tea and soft drinks; over-the-counter cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine; and some asthma medications.

Topics: heart, herbs, palpitations, skipped beat, stimulants