Your heart attack risk can peak during the holidays.
The holidays are a time for excess, and that’s not so good for your heart.
Whether at parties or visiting with family, opportunities that test your resolve around food and alcohol are plentiful. While it’s fine to indulge a little bit, all that excess can have an effect on your health.
Holiday heart syndrome, the occurrence of heart arrhythmia, most frequently atrial fibrillation, after bouts of binge drinking, is known to occur even in healthy individuals.
The first appearance of holiday heart syndrome in the medical literature occurred in 1978. In the research, doctors described the prevalence of cardiac rhythm disorders related to binge drinking that frequently occurred during, you guessed it, holidays.
“Episodes usually followed heavy weekend or holiday sprees, resulting in hospitalization between Sunday and Tuesday or in proximity to the year-end holidays, a relationship not observed in other alcohol-associated illnesses,” the study authors wrote.
Just this month, another study found that heart attack risk spiked 15 percent on during the Christmas/New Year holiday. The risk also increased after New Year’s Eve and other midsummer holidays.
Fortunately, holiday heart syndrome tends to be acute after bouts of drinking. When individuals stop drinking, it tends to resolve on its own. So, if you notice a faster than normal or fluttering heart rate while drinking, it could likely mean you need to lay off the mulled wine.
“It’s an illustration that anything to excess is not a good thing. So, the advice that we give our patients for everything from alcohol to caffeine to supplemental vitamins to exercise is ‘everything in moderation’ is a good rule to follow. You can overdo it. Holiday heart syndrome is something that illustrates that very well,” Dr. Nicholas Skipitaris, Director of Cardiac Electrophysiology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.
Despite holiday heart syndrome being recognized for 40 years, the mechanism or reason why alcohol has this effect on the heart is still not well understood.
Alcohol is known to affect both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, in addition to many other functions in the body which have the potential to induce cardiac arrhythmia.
“Any time the muscle of the heart is affected, the electrical system of the heart which is built into the muscle cells of the heart can also be affected,” said Skipitaris.
In addition to alcohol consumption, the holidays can also affect the heart in different levels. Finances, buying gifts, and hosting family can also lead to increased stress during this time. Diet can also take a turn for the worse with sweets, leftovers, and various rich foods lying around the house.
A holiday party or visiting family also makes it easy for your regular routine for sleeping and exercising to get thrown off track.
So, it may come as no surprise that the number of heart attacks each year tends to increase around Christmas.
That being said, holiday heart syndrome isn’t necessarily dangerous in and of itself. While it’s likely disconcerting to notice a rapid heart rate or skipped beat, without the presence of other symptoms or previous history of heart problems, it’ll likely resolve on its own.
“People may develop some extra beats or some little palpitations if they’re otherwise feeling OK — hopefully that gets better within a 24-hour period. The most important thing from my perspective is don’t keep doing what you’re doing if you’re not feeling well,” said Skipitaris.
However, there are cases in which alcohol-related heart arrhythmias should be taken seriously. You should seek immediate medical care if they’re accompanied by other symptoms such as:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- loss of consciousness
Heart arrhythmias are associated with more serious complications including heart failure and stroke, both of which can result in death if not properly treated.
“Not only is arrhythmia part of holiday heart syndrome, but [so is] heart failure. So [holiday heart] can also be associated with poor pumping function of the heart, where you develop heart failure and the blood is not being pumped through the body the way it’s supposed to and you can become short of breath,” said Skipitaris.
These are, however, the most serious cases that can result from holiday heart syndrome. While the vast majority will resolve with abstinence from alcohol, it’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling and to keep your health and medical history in mind.
“If there is an abrupt change in how you’re feeling or if you’re at all concerned [and think] ‘oh gosh this doesn’t feel right to me,’ it’s always better to err on the side of having a professional take a look at you,” said Skipitaris.
And when it comes to having that fifth glass of spiked eggnog, it might be better to just lay off the sauce.