If you’ve ever experienced a heart palpitation, you know that the feeling of having a fast, fluttering, or pounding heart is scary, to say the least. But despite the freakiness, experts say heart palpitations happen pretty often—and they’re usually not dangerous or a sign of your impending doom.
“They’re very common,” Malissa Wood, M.D., co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF. “Most people will have palpitations at some point in their lives, even if [the palpitations] are short-lived." Nicole Weinberg, M.D., a cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, agrees, telling SELF that heart palpitations are “extremely common” in young women.
According to the Mayo Clinic, heart palpitations can feel like your heart is skipping beats, fluttering, beating too fast, or pumping harder than usual. “If you feel your heart beating at all, that can be a palpitation,” Wood explains. You might feel heart palpitations in your throat, neck, or chest, and they can occur when you’re active or resting, and whether you’re standing, sitting, or lying down, the Mayo Clinic says.
It’s not just a sensation that your heart is skipping beats or beating too fast—your heart is actually doing this, Weinberg says, noting that there can be several reasons for it. A major cause of heart palpitations in young women is having too much caffeine, she says. Wood agrees: “That second or third latte of the morning can bring out extra beats.”
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Stress and anxiety are also big causes of heart palpitations, Wood says. “When your adrenaline level goes up, it makes you feel the palpitations because your heart is beating stronger or faster,” she explains. Lack of sleep can also be an issue, she says, adding that “all of the things that make you on edge can cause palpitations.”
Jennifer Haythe, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF that nicotine can also cause palpitations. "It's a stimulant that can irritate the heart and cause extra beats," she explains.
Hormones can play a role as well. That can be from taking new hormonal birth control pills, missing a menstrual cycle, or “any sort of hormonal changes,” Weinberg says. Pregnancy can also cause heart palpitations because your baseline heart rate increases in order to provide for you and the baby, Haythe says. "Even though there’s nothing wrong with you, you may feel a sense of palpitations," she says.
Dietary changes can cause palpitations, too, Weinberg says, but it tends to be person-specific. “I do have some patients that say whenever they eat a lot of [fill in the blank] foods, like dairy or gluten, or when they’re not having their regular three meals a day…those are things that can bring on palpitations,” she says. Similarly, low blood sugar can give you heart palpitations, especially if you haven't been eating enough but have been working out, Haythe says.
While Wood says heart palpitations are largely not dangerous, she points out that they can be caused by a thyroid condition, high electrolyte levels, or even heart disease in some cases. If you find that you’re having heart palpitations that last for several minutes at a time, you feel like you’re going to pass out when you have them, you experience them when you exercise, or you have chest pain or shortness of breath with palpitations, Wood says you need to get yourself checked out.
Weinberg agrees. “A few isolated palpitations are not a big deal, but if they’re associated with other symptoms or coming more frequently, that’s something that would be alarming,” she says. If you find that you get heart palpitations here and there with no other symptoms, Haythe says it’s a good idea to mention it to your doctor during your annual checkup. Your doctor may want to have you do a basic electrocardiogram, just to make sure everything is OK with your heart. “Take your symptoms seriously," Haythe says. "But in the majority of cases, it's nothing to worry about."