The holidays are typically filled with good cheer in the form of indulgent foods, spiked eggnog, and mulled wine. Add to that the financial stress, travel, and overloaded calendar and people with heart disease can often run into problems. It’s called “holiday heart syndrome,” and even though the name sounds somewhat charming on its face, the reality can be quite dangerous.
Holiday heart syndrome was coined to describe the prevalence of cardiac rhythm disorders like atrial fibrillation resulting from binge drinking during the holidays. The first appearance of the term was in a study published in 1978, which explained an increase in cardiac hospitalizations in the days following Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
“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 abstract says.
Research has confirmed this correlation since that original study, as recently as 2018. A study published in the British Medical Journal that year found that heart attack risk spiked on holidays like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, in addition to large sporting events and other national holidays. During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, that risk went up 15 percent.
It’s widely understood that binge drinking is detrimental to heart health; even one binge drinking session can cause an arrhythmia. However, the exact explanation for alcohol’s effect on the heart remains unknown. Heavy alcohol consumption certainly affects the body in many ways, but the exact mechanism affecting heart health is not well understood.
In addition to arrhythmias, alcohol consumption has been linked to a number of heart-related issues, including cardiomyopathy, a disorder that reduces the heart’s ability to effectively pump blood.
“You can actually drink your heart muscle into a weakened state when you consume heavily (four to five drinks a day over several years),” .
Binge drinking also leads to higher blood pressure and high calorie consumption, which can lead to weight gain that negatively affects your heart.
Clearly, the primary prevention method is to avoid binge drinking. If you feel a flutter in your chest or an increased heart rate while drinking, it’s best to cut yourself off for the night. The good news is, even if you do experience holiday heart syndrome following a bout of binge drinking, it typically does not sustain long-term and resolves on its own after you stop drinking.
Though they may look a little different in 2020, the holidays typically come with many triggers for heart disease. There’s the food and alcohol, of course, but in addition to that comes the stress of buying gifts and hosting family, interference with routines like a regular exercise and sleep, and an overall spirit of indulgence. It’s no surprise, then, that the prevalence of heart attacks also increases during the holiday season. A Swedish study quoted in an article from Baptist Health South Florida observed that “in comparison to the two weeks before and after Christmas, heart-attack risks were 37 percent higher on Christmas Eve, 20 percent higher on New Year’s Day, and 15 percent higher on Christmas Day.”
While a little indulgence is fine, be sure to keep an eye on these triggers if you have heart disease or are at risk for heart disease. If you’re having trouble cutting back on alcohol or feel like your consumption is interfering with your life, reach out to your doctor or your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. Every 37 seconds, a person dies from cardiovascular disease. With statistics like these, it’s not entirely surprising that heart disease is the leading cause of death in American adults across nearly every race and ethnicity. Almost half of all adult Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure), so it is more important than ever to be aware of the signs and symptoms and take what measures we can to lower our risk of cardiac events.
Most heart disease is preventable through a healthy lifestyle, but if you exhibit any of these risk factors, consider getting screened for heart disease like carotid artery disease (CAD) or peripheral artery disease (PAD):
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a type of arrhythmia in which the upper chambers of the heart do not beat at a regular pace, causing blood to pool in the heart and increasing the risk of stroke. AFib itself is not harmful, but people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke, which is life-threatening. It’s a good idea to get screened if you exhibit these risk factors:
Life Line Screening provides quick, painless screenings for CAD, PAD and AFib screenings. Schedule a screening today to arm yourself with knowledge about your own health so you can be better equipped to live the life you want to live. If you have any questions about screenings or heart health, please give us a call at 800.909.1041. We would love to help.
“Arrhythmias and the ‘Holiday Heart’: Alcohol associated cardiac rhythm disorders.” Phillip O. Edinger, et al., American Heart Journal, May 1978.
“Ask a Cardiologist: Alcohol and Heart Health.” Heart & Stroke.
“Holiday Heart Attacks: What You Need to Know.” Baptist Health South Florida, December 2019.
“Heart Disease Facts.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.
heart disease, cardiovascular disease