In the first half of the 20th century, coal miners took canaries into the mines with them as an early warning system of toxic gases in the air. The canary was more sensitive to polluted air than the humans. If the canary got sick (or died), the humans high-tailed it out of the mine or put on a respirator. My Afib episodes may be the canaries in my body’s coal mine. They are my body’s response to excess stress.

As I’ve written before, I have a long history with Afib. In the 30+ years that I was in Afib 24/7, the symptoms would get worse on bad air quality days or if I was getting sick with a cold or the flu. My heart would race even more than usual, I’d be dizzy with the slightest movement, and I just didn’t have energy. My body was giving me an early warning that the next day (or days) would be spent lying on the couch.

After my first ablation, I had a blissful 8+ years without any Afib episodes. By the time of my second ablation, I was having Afib episodes once every 2 months or so. I often couldn’t tell what triggered them. Was it too much exercise, too much alcohol, something I ate? The second ablation didn’t really help, and soon I was having episodes every few weeks, and the episodes were lasting longer (2-3 days) and more intense (really crazy heart rate and rhythm). By now a trend was more apparent: The episodes were related to what I ate (high-fat foods and lactose were definite triggers) and travel (when I didn’t eat as well and was out of my routine).  I won’t describe my digestive symptoms, but suffice it to say that I had a mental map of every public bathroom.

Fast forward to this past August, and I had emergency gallbladder surgery. Since then (touch wood), no more Afib episodes. Not a single one. In retrospect, the pre-second ablation episodes were my early warning signal that something was very wrong in my digestive system. And the ever-increasing frequency of Afib episodes was a late warning signal, an SOS if you will. I just didn’t know how to read the signals or what the warning was trying to tell me. And even when other physical signals were getting stronger, the doctors didn’t know how to fix the digestive problem.

For me, the Afib episodes are a signal to pay attention and anticipate some other physical issue. If I know what the trigger is, I can avoid it. I no longer drink much alcohol. I don’t eat fatty foods. I’m moving next spring to a place that does not have some of the world’s worst air quality for weeks every summer and winter (from Salt Lake City to the Seattle area). Once the other physical issue is taken care of, the reduced stress in my body eliminates the Afib episodes. But mostly, I’m trying to move to a place of gratitude that my body has this early warning system. I just need to learn to better recognize what the warning is about.

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