A FEW EXTRA glasses of champagne or rum-spiked eggnog, boxes of Christmas candy, and multi-course holiday feasts are all things you indulge (and, overindulge) in over the holiday season. The constant flow of alcohol, salt, and fat could be doing a number on your heart and increasing your risk for a condition known as holiday heart syndrome.
“The current thinking is that excessive alcohol intake can short-circuit the heart’s electrical system, change electrolyte levels in the blood and increase the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol,” says Chileshe Nkonde Price, M.D., M.R.C.P., F.A.C.C., assistant professor and cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente.
Holiday heart syndrome can lead to serious heart problems, like heart failure and stroke. People with pre-existing heart conditions are most at risk—but, it can also happen to people with no evidence of heart disease, Dr. Price says.
Whether it’s related to holiday heart syndrome or another cardiac issue, heart attacks are more common during the winter. More cardiac deaths happen on December 25 and 26, and January 1 than any other time of the year, according to research published in the journal Circulation. Along with overeating and over-drinking, cold weather can constrict blood vessels, which restricts blood flow and triggers heart attacks.
It is possible to lower your risk for holiday heart syndrome, and the condition can be reversible, Dr. Price says. Here’s a closer look at the signs of holiday heart syndrome and what you can do to protect yourself.
What Is Holiday Heart Syndrome?
Holiday heart syndrome was first described by Dr. Philip Ettinger in 1978, after noticing several patients—without a history of cardiac issues–going to the hospital reporting heart rhythm disturbances following binge drinking, says Nick West, M.D., a cardiologist and chief medical officer and divisional vice president of global medical affairs at Abbott’s vascular business.
“He coined the term ‘holiday heart syndrome’ as the majority of episodes observed occurred at or just after the weekend, especially between Christmas Eve and the New Year,” Dr. West says.
Holiday heart syndrome is characterized by irregular heartbeats, known as arrhythmias, usually AFib, Dr. Price says. Most people feel like their heart is racing or fluttering.
The arrhythmias are triggered by the stress that consuming too much alcohol and sodium puts on the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic. The condition could potentially cause a stroke.
Why Is It More Common Over the Holidays?
The arrhythmias linked to holiday heart syndrome can technically happen any time of the year, but it’s more common around the holidays. That’s when people tend to consume excessive alcohol and overeat salty, rich foods.
“Prolonged excess drinking at any time can be damaging to the cardiovascular system and to health in general,” Dr. West says. “It can lead to suppression of the immune system, liver disease and ultimately liver failure, damage to the heart muscle leading to heart failure and rhythm disturbances, as well as a variety of cancers.”
You don’t even have to be a habitual drinker to see the effects. Dr. West says people who don’t drink often can still experience AFib after drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
Signs of Holiday Heart Syndrome
People with existing heart conditions are most at risk for holiday heart syndrome. So are individuals with risk factors for heart disease or AFib—including high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, sleep-disordered breathing, diabetes, and smoking, Dr. Price says.
Seek medical attention immediately if you have any of these symptoms of holiday heart syndrome:
- Pounding, racing, or fluttering in your chest
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort
“People tend to ignore their symptoms over the holidays and wait until the new year to get medical attention, but it’s critical to seek out care if you have a persistent racing heartbeat and chest pain, or if you’re struggling to breathe,” Dr. Price says.
How to Lower Your Risk for Holiday Heart Syndrome
Holiday heart syndrome can be deadly, but Dr. Price says it can also be treated and is reversible. Depending on the patient, it can be treated using low-energy shocks used to restore a regular heart rhythm, known as cardioversion, or through medication. And, you’ll need to stop drinking alcohol or dramatically reduce your alcohol intake to possibly reverse the arrhythmia.
You can lower your risk for holiday heart syndrome by following these steps.
Limit Your Alcohol Intake
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests men drink no more than two drinks a day and women and older adults, one drink per day.
Pay Attention to What You Eat
Avoid eating too many fatty, salty, or sugary foods over a prolonged period of time. You can still enjoy them, just in moderation.
Drinking plenty of water will minimize the dehydrating effects of alcohol. Drinking a glass of water for each alcoholic beverage is a good practice.
Staying fit is good for your heart and can help “buffer against AFib,” Dr. Price says. “If you have a regular exercise routine that you can’t get to during the holidays, find some time for a modified workout, even if that’s just a walk around the block.”
Get Plenty of Sleep
The holidays can be chaotic and bring added stress. Finding time to unwind in between holiday get-togethers will help you stay calm and relaxed, which is also good for your heart.
This article was first published on Men’s Health US.