When it comes to matters of your heart, chances are you’ve heard about beta blockers. A beta blocker is one of the most prescribed medications for those with a weak heart, or coronary artery disease (CAD), but what exactly does it do and is it right for you?
Below, we explain what beta blockers are in more detail, including their use in treating other non-cardiovascular conditions.
What are beta blockers?
Beta blockers, also known as beta-adrenergic blocking agents, are a class of medications that block the actions of certain hormones, like epinephrine (AKA adrenaline), in the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the body that controls your vital functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure.
Hormones like adrenaline and stress hormones are used by your body to activate your fight-or-flight response to stressors. When your body is stressed, these hormones are released. When this happens, you might notice your heart starts racing, your hands shake and become sweaty, and you feel lightheaded.
“Beta blockers basically block or stop these physiological responses,” said Rajesh Janardhanan, MD, a cardiologist with Banner - University Medicine. “Instead of your body going into overdrive, your heart will remain at a normal pace, blocking the effects on your body and organs.”
Over time, beta blockers can help your heart pump more efficiently and blood pressure to lower. By reducing stress on the heart, heart attacks and other major health issues are less likely.
Which health conditions can beta blockers help treat?
Beta blockers are used to treat a number of heart-related and non-heart-related issues.
Your health care provider uses beta blockers to treat arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), angina (chest pains) and hypertension (high blood pressure). “For those with congestive heart failure and those who have had heart attacks, beta blockers are lifesaving medications,” Dr. Janardhanan said.
More recently, beta blockers have been used off-label to treat conditions such as glaucoma, migraines and situational and performance-related anxiety, like stage fright or social anxiety.
“Off-label means that we use a medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for purposes other than what it was intended for,” Dr. Janardhanan said.
Beta blockers aren’t intended for those who live with a diagnosed anxiety disorder. “That’s because beta blockers will stop the physical effects but won’t treat the psychological symptoms of anxiety,” Dr. Janardhanan said. “For those who feel anxiety in the body and mind, it may be better to take something that works all the time.”
There are two main types of beta blockers: selective and nonselective. Selective beta blockers are designed specifically for the heart, while nonselective beta blockers are designed to treat the heart, veins and a range of organs in the body.
Some of the most widely used beta blockers include:
Are there side effects?
Most people who use beta blockers don’t experience side effects. However, like almost all medications, some side effects are still possible. The most common side effects include fatigue or feeling more tired, dizziness and/or cold hands and feet.
“Side effects of beta blockers are often temporary and go away after the body adjusts to the medication,” Dr. Janardhanan said.
Less common side effects include depression, shortness of breath and low sex drive (libido).
“Although rare, the use of medications like diuretics and beta blockers may contribute to problems like erectile dysfunction,” Dr. Janardhanan said.
It’s also possible for beta blockers to interact with medications, so talk your provider about any medications you are currently taking before starting a new medication.
What happens if I stop taking my beta blocker?
Whether you’re experiencing side effects or another reason, don’t stop taking your medication without first talking to your provider. It’s very dangerous – and life-threatening – to stop taking your beta blocker medication.
“Abruptly stopping beta blockers can increase your likelihood of heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest,” Dr. Janardhanan said.
Other tips to improve heart health
In addition to the use of beta blockers to treat heart-related problems, diet and lifestyle changes can also help your heart health.
“Taking a holistic approach to your health not only helps your heart, but it can also help lower stress and help your body handle it better,” Dr. Janardhanan said.
Here are some general tips on how to take care of your heart:
- Stay active. Do at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise a day. However, talk to your doctor if you’re starting a new workout plan.
- Maintain a healthy weight. People who are overweight are at greater risk for coronary heart disease, stroke and hypertension. Talk to your provider to find out your ideal weight.
- Eat a plant-based diet. Focus on fresh, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and beans. Limit meat consumption, especially red meat.
- Kick bad habits to the curb. Smoking and excessive drinking can harm your heart and take a toll on your overall health. Quit smoking and cut back on your alcohol consumption.
- Get proper rest. Lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk of all causes of death. Aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night to promote optimal health.
- Take your health seriously. Keep up with regular wellness checks and talk to your provider about your heart health and potential risks. Take our heart age test to learn more about your potential risk.
Beta blockers are prescription medications that block the effects of stress hormones, such as epinephrine or adrenaline. These medications cause the heart to beat more slowly and reduce the force with which blood pumps to the rest of your body. They can be useful in treating a number of heart conditions such as CAD, abnormal heart rhythms and hypertension as well as glaucoma and situational anxiety.
If you have questions about beta blockers, schedule an appointment to discuss them with your health care provider. They can help you decide what is safe and what is not depending on your condition and health.
To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
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Updates were made to this article on January 10, 2024.