The holiday season is meant to be a time of joy and togetherness, but for many it brings heightened risk of heart issues. Cases of ‘holiday heart syndrome’, where heart rhythms become abnormal due to excessive eating and drinking, are unfortunately common at this time of year.
What is Holiday Heart Syndrome?
Holiday heart syndrome, also known as holiday heart, refers to disruptions in the heart’s rhythm caused by heavy alcohol consumption paired with lack of sleep and stress around the holidays. Some common symptoms are:
- Fast or irregular heart rhythms (heart palpitations)
- Shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
While these symptoms often go away on their own, holiday heart can sometimes lead to a fatal cardiac event in those with underlying heart disease.
“Holiday heart syndrome is real and we see it every year,” said Dr. Clifford Kavinsky, head of cardiac electrophysiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “It’s important that people are informed about the risk and take measures to prevent it.”
Holiday Indulgences Can Overwhelm the Heart
Experts say there are a few key reasons why heart issues spike this time of year:
Stress – The holidays can be filled with stressful activities like shopping, cooking, traveling, hosting parties, and family visits. Stress causes inflammation and constricts blood vessels, which taxes the cardiovascular system.
Fatty foods – The holidays notoriously involve consumption of fatty, sugary, and salty treats which are hard on the heart. These foods cause blood platelet activation and disrupt heart rhythms.
Alcohol – Many people tend to imbibe far more than usual over the holidays at parties and family gatherings. Experts warn more than 2 drinks per day substantially increases the risk of holiday heart.
Lack of sleep – Holiday revelries often lead to much less sleep than people get the rest of the year. Too little sleep has been strongly linked with increased incidence of cardiovascular disease.
Cold weather – The holiday season coincides with winter in many parts of the world. Exposure to very cold weather forces the heart to work harder to keep the body warm.
All these factors together place tremendous strain on the cardiovascular system. For those with underlying issues, it can be enough to trigger significant heart problems.
More People Experience Heart Attacks This Time of Year
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is well established to be the deadliest week of the year for heart attacks.
“Many studies have shown holiday heart attacks tend to peak on both Christmas and New Year’s Day,” said Dr. Annabelle Volgman, a cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center.
This aligns with data showing a 5% spike in heart attack deaths during the winter holidays. Heart attack rates are generally higher in winter months, but the holidays represent the yearly peak.
Interestingly, Mondays see the most holiday-period heart attacks, suggesting workplace stress when returning to work after time off contributes to the effect.
Tips to Prevent Holiday Heart Issues
Doctors offer a range of suggestions to help people avoid holiday heart syndrome and other cardiac events this time of year:
Exercise – Maintain your normal exercise regimen through the holidays to manage weight and stress levels. Even light exercise like walking helps.
Healthy diet – Stick to your normal balanced diet as much as possible. Limit treats and keep portion sizes reasonable.
Moderate alcohol – No more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. Avoid binge drinking.
Reduce stress – Make time to relax and don’t take on too many holiday obligations. Say no to commitments that seem overly stressful.
Get enough sleep – Make sleep a top priority through the holidays, even if it means missing out on some parties or activities.
Stay warm – Dress appropriately for cold weather and limit time spent outdoors in the elements.
Table 1: Tips to Prevent Holiday Heart at a Glance
|Walking, strength training
|Limit treats, watch portions
|1 drink women
2 drinks men
|Say no to obligations
Make time to relax
|Get enough sleep
|Don’t sacrifice sleep for activities
Limit outdoor exposure
Experts emphasize only a few lifestyle changes can make a big difference in avoiding holiday heart woes. The key is being informed and proactive.
Many Cases of Holiday Heart Go Undetected
Holiday heart often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms tend to be transient. People frequently write off holiday heart issues as normal results of holiday indulgences.
“Because symptoms often resolve quickly, people rarely seek medical attention and thus cases often go unreported,” said Dr. Volgman.
Doctors explain that even minor disruptions in heart rhythm should not be ignored. They advise anyone experiencing noticeable palpitations, chest pain, dizziness or shortness of breath to see a doctor promptly.
Undiagnosed and untreated, holiday heart can result in permanent heart damage over time or prove fatal if an arrhythmia is serious. Those with a history of heart disease are at heightened risk.
Long Term Effects Still Being Studied
While holiday heart was identified decades ago, the long term effects of repeated incidents over one’s life are still being studied.
Early research shows minor heart rhythm issues likely inflict gradual damage, eventually increasing susceptibility to more major cardiovascular disease. Scientists compare it to how repeated minor concussions accrue over time to heighten risk of severe brain trauma.
“We used to think holiday heart was mostly benign if transitory, but newer studies suggest lasting implications,” said Dr. Kavinsky. “Even small disruptions likely inflict cardiac damage, eventually putting patients at greater risk.”
More research is still needed in this area. For now doctors emphasize prevention is imperative, especially for those with preexisting heart disease. They caution the safest bet is avoiding overindulgence altogether.
Holiday Heart Prevention is Crucial
The clear message from medical experts about holiday heart syndrome is advance preparation and moderation are key. They advise being ready to say no to commitments, food, drink and revelry you know could overwhelm your health limits.
With some mindfulness, self-restraint and smart precautions, we all can enjoy the spirit of the season while keeping our health intact. Stay informed and listen to your body – a few small adjustments could save your life this holiday season.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.