Holiday Heart Syndrome: What You Need to Know

During the period from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for acute illnesses tend to spike. While the holidays are a joyous time when friends and family gather to celebrate the season, there can be significant health dangers lurking. Between parties for Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's Eve, many holiday events involve lots of decadent foods, caffeine and alcohol. These foods often contain lots of fats, sugar, salt and excess calories. In addition, the holidays are filled with stress -- last-minute shopping, family disagreements and financial concerns -- all of which can have profound effects on the cardiovascular system. The craziness surrounding holiday preparations also may result in inadequate sleep, and this may further increase the emotional and physical stress on our bodies. Patients with underlying heart disease -- and even those have never had heart disease -- may face serious medical problems related to overindulgence.

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What Is Holiday Heart?

"Holiday heart syndrome" was first named by physicians in 1978 to describe irregular heart rhythms that seemed to occur during the holiday season after periods of heavy alcohol consumption. As originally described, this condition was most often seen in patients without underlying heart disease. The most common heart rhythm disorder seen with holiday heart is called atrial fibrillation, or AF. In AF, the top chambers of the heart (called the atria) begin to beat in a fast, irregular manner. This can make patients feel acutely ill. Symptoms of AF include palpitations, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fatigue and even chest pain. It is thought that AF is triggered in holiday heart syndrome due to the effects of overindulgence. Alcohol intake can short circuit the electrical system of the heart, change electrolyte levels in the blood and increase the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. In turn, these changes in body chemistry can result in the initiation of AF. These effects can be exacerbated by stress, sleep deprivation and overeating. AF can be serious and can lead to stroke in patients who are at higher risk.

What Other Cardiac Problems Occur During the Holidays?

In patients with underlying heart disease -- particularly congestive heart failure or CHF -- the holidays can present a particular challenge. Overeating and the added salt in many holiday meals and goodies can put heart patients at risk for a CHF flare. Patients with CHF can experience shortness of breath and swelling called edema, and many wind up in the hospital. Many heart failure patients must maintain a fine balance in fluid intake during normal times, and the holidays can make this even more difficult. In addition, patients with underlying heart disease may be at increased risk for heart attack during the holiday time due to increased physical activity (shoveling snow) and general holiday stress.

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What Can You Do to Prevent Holiday Heart Syndrome and Other Cardiac Complications?

A good strategy to avoid health complications during the holidays is to practice moderation and take time out to rest and de-stress. This is often difficult to do, but here are a few tips:

1. Don't Overeat

It's important to remember that between Thanksgiving and New Year's, the average American will gain 5 to 10 pounds. Make sure you eat a healthy breakfast every day, and never go to an event starving. Monitor portion sizes, and enjoy all the wonderful treats of the season -- but do so responsibly. Avoid foods that are covered in creamy sauces, and try not to go back for seconds.

2. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine

Alcohol is one of the biggest sources of excess calories during the holiday period. While it's certainly OK to enjoy one glass of wine at an event, bingeing can have negative consequences. It's also important to limit caffeine. Excessive caffeine intake can cause insomnia and precipitate heart rhythm problems. In addition, caffeine and alcohol can result in dehydration, which can lead to further disturbances in your electrolytes.

3. Exercise

It's vital to exercise at least 150 minutes a week during the holidays. Exercise can help alleviate excess stress and burn off extra calories. In addition, exercise -- particularly resistance training -- can jump-start your metabolism and help you burn calories throughout the day. Exercise is also essential for your cardiovascular health and can health protect you from heart attack and stroke.

[See: 17 Ways Heart Health Varies in Women and Men.]

4. Take 10 Minutes and Breathe

The holidays are stressful. We often work long hours and prepare for trips and visitors during our downtime. It's important to take a few minutes out of every day to simply relax. A good way to accomplish this is to set aside 10 minutes of quiet time each day -- simple meditation and breathing exercises can help lower blood pressure, heart rate and decrease the day's stress.

The holidays are a time for family and friends to come together and celebrate. Make sure you keep your holidays safe and enjoyable by taking steps to ensure you stay healthy during the next several weeks. Holiday heart syndrome, while common, can be avoided through practicing moderation and by continuing healthy lifestyle habits throughout the coming weeks. If you think you're having an abnormal heart rhythm or symptoms consistent with holiday heart syndrome, it's important to seek medical attention immediately.

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