The WellSpan Spotlight

Health and wellness

When the holidays make your heart race

When the holidays make your heart race

The holidays are the time for family, friends, and festive feasts. 

And the time for heart problems. 

In fact, more cardiac deaths occur on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year, followed by Dec. 26, and Jan. 1, according to a study published in Circulation, the flagship journal of the American Heart Association. 

Some heart problems may be due to unhealthy habits we indulge in during the holiday season. 

"Many of us change our habits during the holidays, eating and drinking more, exercising less, traveling to visit family members, and rushing around to fit in everything," says WellSpan cardiologist Dr. Sukrut Nanavaty. "All of these factors can impact our heart and then we don't seek or delay getting help because of the busy nature of the holidays." 

It is such a phenomenon that cardiologists even have given it a nickname: "holiday heart syndrome." 

Holiday heart is typically caused by drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, eating fatty and salty food, experiencing higher levels of stress, and not drinking enough water. All of this can increase pressure on the heart. The stress can cause an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation or AFib. 

Alcohol is one of the biggest causes of holiday heart syndrome. It appears to have an immediate, or near-immediate, effect on heart rhythm, according to data from the American College of Cardiology. Even just one glass of wine, beer or another alcoholic beverage increases your odds of experiencing AFib within the next few hours. Anyone can experience this syndrome, but your risk is higher if you already have heart issues. 

Over time, if not treated, AFib can lead to stroke or heart failure. 

"It is important to recognize when your heart is under stress, and to know when to seek help," Dr. Nanavaty.says. "Don't ignore the symptoms and think you can wait until the day after a party to get help." 

The signs 

Holiday heart syndrome symptoms include: 

  • A fluttering, racing, or pounding heartbeat. 
  • Discomfort in your chest, including pain or pressure. 
  • Dizziness and light-headedness. 
  • Trouble breathing, even while resting. 
  • Sweating or anxiety. 
  • A lack of energy, feeling wiped out and tired. 

When to seek help 

Holiday heart syndrome often resolves itself within 24 hours but if you experience a persistent racing heartbeat or severe chest pain, if you are struggling to breathe, or if you have other severe symptoms, don't wait. Seek help immediately at the nearest emergency department. 

How to avoid holiday heart syndrome 

Having a game plan for the holidays can help you get through the season in a healthy way, Dr. Nanavaty.says. 

To do that: 

  • Avoid binge drinking. For men: no more than two drinks daily (more than five drinks at a time is considered binge drinking). For women: no more than one drink daily (more than four drinks at a time is considered binge drinking). 
  • Eat in moderation and watch your salt intake. 
  • Drink water. Then drink some more. Healthy adults should drink between 11 and 15 cups of water a day, according to recommendations from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. 
  • Watch your caffeine intake. Healthy adults can generally ingest up to 400 milligrams a day (equivalent to four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola, or two energy drinks). 
  • Reduce stress by learning to say no to some invitations and not trying to do everything. Decide what's most important and what will bring you joy, and let the rest go. 
  • Exercise when you can. Take a walk with your family to look at holiday decorations in your neighborhood. Park the car a distance from the store or your office. 
  • Make sure you are taking all prescribed medications regularly. 
  • Get adequate sleep. Healthy adults should get at least seven hours a night. 

Looking for an expert to keep your heart healthy, at the holidays and all year-round? We offer world-class, personalized care. Go here to find out more about our program and take a heart health risk assessment.