I’ve always considered myself a health-conscious person—with one major exception. I have fainted, suddenly and inexplicably, for decades. For a long time, I didn’t look into why.
I remember the first time I passed out: I was doing a tough workout with my cross-country team in college, felt woozy, and suddenly woke up on the ground. Since then, I’ve passed out when I’ve been sick with a cold (including a time when I was so disoriented that a doctor had to call an ambulance to take me to the hospital) and on the subway during my first pregnancy. Scary as these fainting episodes were, they were spaced far enough apart that I didn’t really put together that something might be connecting them.
Honestly? I also didn’t want to make it a big deal (even though it was arguably already a big deal that I was randomly passing out all the time). I pride myself on being able to soldier through just about anything, and a part of me still isn’t totally comfortable acknowledging this side of my health history because I don’t want to seem fallible. But that same dismissal meant I put off getting not only answers, but the help I really needed.
I started having dizzy spells more often over the past six years, which freaked my family and me out. In 2018, I had a second trimester miscarriage with twins and fainted from blood loss, hitting my head several times when I fell. Late last year, I got sick after a friend’s wedding, broke into a cold sweat, and started to black out—my husband had to hold me up to make sure I didn’t lose consciousness.
These two instances really scared me. As a health reporter, I saw some parallels between what I was going through and common heart attack and heart failure symptoms—like sudden lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and cold sweats. And I have a complicated family history of heart disease. My grandmother died from a heart attack at 46, and several of my family members have heart rhythm issues.
Finally, I went to see a cardiologist a few months ago. I was tired of fainting spells disrupting my life, and I have four young kids and a chef husband who works late at night—I could end up passing out when I’m alone with the kids or seriously injure myself. It was time to figure this out.
After doing an ultrasound of my heart, my doctor determined that I didn’t have heart failure or heart disease. However, I was diagnosed with bradycardia, which means my heart rate is slower than 60 beats per minute, lower than what’s considered typical (between 60 and 100 beats per minute), according to the American Heart Association. When my body hasn’t absorbed enough salt or water, my heart rate drops even more, my cardiologist explained—and that prompts the fainting.1
I learned that bradycardia can cause weakness, dizziness, confusion, fainting, unusually intense fatigue during exercise, and chest pain. As a competitive athlete who continues to train at really high levels, it’s not super surprising that I have it. “Young healthy people—particularly athletes—can have slower heart rates, which can be a result of their exercise training,” Jeffrey J. Hsu, MD, PhD, a cardiologist with UCLA Health, tells SELF. I later learned that bradycardia can be caused by a range of factors, including damage to the heart (often related to aging), thyroid issues, autoimmune diseases like lupus, and congenital heart defects.