Never ignore a maidenly swoon.
According to the American Heart Association, fainting, or ‘syncope’, is a sudden loss of consciousness caused by lack of blood flow to to the brain. About one in four people will faint at some point during their lives.
Syncope is generally triggered by the vagus nerve, which connects the digestive system to your brain. As such, it manages blood flow to the gut when food enters the system by redirecting blood from other organs. However, the vagus nerve can become over-reactive, pulling a little too much blood from the brain. This leads to a flushed face, sudden weakness and brief loss of consciousness.
Fainting is temporary, and the sufferer generally recovers immediately. Therefore, it’s often dismissed as a trivial health issue, which may not be the case. While one in four people who faint are genetically prone, syncope could be a sign of another medical issue, and should never be ignored. According to GP Dr Michael Johnston, fainting is indicative of many underlying ailments, including five potentially seriously conditions you should consider if a fainting spell strikes.
“Dehydration is caused by a lack of fluid intake, which causes a reduction in the blood volume to the brain,” states Johnston. “Many people are prone to neglecting their water intake, making it a very common cause of fainting.”
However, Johnston says preventing dehydration is as easy as being constantly vigilant of the amount of water you drink.
“To prevent dehydration, maintain adequate fluids in the order of at least eight glasses of water per day. It’s worth remembering dehydration is more common in Summer. Therefore, it’s important you don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink water. Keep replenishing throughout the day.”
Although a less common cause, anxiety can also trigger syncope by inducing a panic attack.
“Panic attacks and anxiety can cause a number of different symptoms, and are related to the release of adrenaline; the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response,” says Johnston.
“Things like sweaty palms, heart palpitations, blurred vision, muscle tightness, headaches, a feeling of impending doom, and sometimes fainting are all commonly associated with anxiety.”
If fainting presents with any of these symptoms, Johnston recommends seeing your GP, who will refer you to a psychologist if the symptoms are a constant presence in your daily life.
3. Heart problems
Regardless of the fact this is a relatively uncommon cause of fainting, Johnston asserts it is extremely important not to dismiss cardiac issues as a trigger for syncope.
“The usual cause of fainting when related to cardiac arrest is an arrhythmia, which is an abnormal rhythm in the heart,” he states.
“Sometimes the body gives you a clue via an awareness of your heartbeat; that is, palpitations. You can feel dizzy and lightheaded, suffer chest pains or shortness of breath, and sometimes faint as a result. The take-home message here is that all episodes of fainting should be investigated, especially if you have a family history of heart conditions.”
“Hypoglycemia can occur if people forget to eat, are exercising vigorously, or if they have diabetes and take too much medication,” explains Johnston.
“Symptoms are feelings of anxiety, sweaty palms and body, shaking hands, and a feeling of confusion.”
Hypoglycemia usually leads to fainting in the case of those who suffer hypoglycemic unawareness; that is, blood sugar drops so quickly that warning symptoms may not even present. In this situation, Johnston advocates consuming carbohydrates as quickly as possible.
“Simple sugars such as jellybeans, chocolate or juice are ideal, as well as some more complex carbohydrates. Bread, rice and pasta fall into this category. It’s important you consult a GP if you suspect you have hypoglycemia, as it can be indicative of diabetes, or cause seizures and damage the central nervous system.”
5. Iron deficiency
According to Johnston, iron deficiency is a very common cause of fainting, especially if combined with dehydration.
“A lot of women are low in iron, owing to not consuming iron-rich foods, or even heavy menstrual bleeding,” he says.
“If you think fainting could be related to iron deficiency, see your GP to arrange a blood test to determine your iron levels. Common treatments include upping the amount of red meat in your diet, as well as taking iron supplements if more is needed. In addition, heavy menstrual bleeding can be treated with oral contraception.”
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