Recently, the dangers of holiday overindulgence have been further highlighted. Dr. Nicholas Ruthmann, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says, "We drink and eat so much more and exercise and relax so much less than really any other time of year."
This tendency towards gluttony when it comes to alcoholic drinks has been known since the seventies, when doctors first labeled it 'Holiday Heart Syndrome.' They observed people presenting with irregular heart rhythms - known as atrial fibrillation - in direct correlation to increased levels of drinking during festive periods. It is clear, then, that extra caution needs to be taken during the holiday season to maintain cardiovascular health.
What is Holiday Heart Syndrome?
Holiday Heart Syndrome (HHS) is a real cardiovascular condition characterized by an irregular heartbeat that appears after heavy alcohol consumption or drug use, usually around the holiday season. Dr. Kristen Brown of the University of Nebraska Medical Center explains that HHS affects “young people, old people, anybody” – making it imperative to be mindful of how you fuel your body during this festive time of year.
In order to lower your risk for HHS, you should consume alcohol in moderation and avoid mixing it with certain medications, like antibiotics, as they can increase your chances of developing this condition. Additionally, taking care to stay hydrated and getting sufficient sleep are essential strategies that help promote overall health and may reduce the likelihood of HHS. Anyone experiencing symptoms associated with HHS should seek medical attention immediately in order to be diagnosed and treated properly.
Symptoms of HHS
Holiday heart syndrome is a serious medical condition typically caused by heavy drinking on occasions like holidays or special events. It can cause rapid, abnormal heart rhythms called alcohol-induced atrial fibrillation (A-fib). Symptoms vary from person to person and may include fluttering or pounding palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and even passing out. Although the vast majority of people with A-fib will not exhibit any noticeable symptoms, for some the condition can become permanent if left unchecked. Experts recommend consulting with a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you may have A-fib.
What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation, a potentially serious condition in which the heart beats abnormally, is becoming increasingly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from A-fib has been steadily rising for over two decades due to an aging population.
Those suffering from A-fib may be at higher risk for stroke, dementia, and heart failure; watchful monitoring of any symptoms is therefore essential. Although medications are available to manage the condition, making lifestyle changes such as engaging in physical activity and eating a healthy diet can help minimize symptoms and reduce risk.
Although anyone who drinks heavily can experience A-fib, certain people are considered higher risk for the condition. Older individuals have a greater chance of having holiday heart syndrome; by age 80, around 10 percent of the population have experienced it. Other risk factors for the condition include height (being taller than 5 feet 7 inches increases your risk), obesity, and family history of early-onset A-fib.
Thankfully, advances in technology have made it easier to diagnose and treat A-fib: electrocardiograms are often ordered during routine screenings after the age of 50, and smartwatches with heart monitors allow patients to pick up on changes in their own rhythms.
Doctors are seeing more cases of HHS, which is an umbrella term for symptoms related to the excessive overuse of alcohol during the holidays. The cause of this condition is still being researched, but the leading hypothesis is that alcohol messes with our nervous system and causes changes in our heart's electrical signals, leading to cardiac irregularities such as atrial fibrillation.
Scientists have also demonstrated that having just a single alcoholic beverage daily increases your chances of developing A-fib by 16 percent. Thankfully, with today's growing awareness on drinking safely and controlling portions, odds are many holiday-goers won't encounter this dangerous condition when celebrating in moderation.
When to seek out medical attention
Although it may be tempting for people of all ages to indulge in a glass of beer or wine on special occasions, doctors caution that even slight increases in consumption could lead to an increased chance of atrial fibrillation. Every second counts when it comes to detecting and treating cardiac issues. If you experience a persistent racing heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or confusion, it is important to seek out medical attention immediately.
Due to the heightened emotions associated with holiday celebrations, it can be easy for individuals to overlook their symptoms and wait until after the new year to seek care. However, health experts urge seeking help right away as every delay can have potentially serious consequences.
The holidays can be a time of indulgence and celebration, but it’s important to take care of your heart in the midst of all the festivities. Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink is one way to look after your heart, but for those who do choose to consume, there are other ways to stay safe.
First and foremost, hydrate throughout the holiday season by having plenty of water between drinks. Dehydration increases the risk of developing holiday heart syndrome. It’s essential you monitor your hydration levels while you’re drinking. Alongside this, make sure that you take regular breaks from consuming alcoholic beverages and don’t go overboard with portion size. It's possible to have fun over the holidays while also looking after your cardiac health - just start with these few tips!
Take your medication
Sticking to a regular medication regimen is critical for managing conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease. Missing doses of medication can compromise its effectiveness and potentially lead to dangerous health consequences. This can be especially true when people are away from home, as they may overlook their usual routine. Bring enough medication to last throughout travel, so there is no risk of missing a necessary dose while away from home. Taking your regular prescription can ensure that your medical journey remains comfortable and successful.
During the holiday season, it can be challenging to stay active and fit. With all of the extra events and commitments, finding time for fitness can seem impossible. But it pays off in spades - studies have linked moderate exercise to reduced risk of atrial fibrillation or A-fib.
Couldn't make it to your workout class? Keep moving with a brisk walk around the block or some light stretching in the comfort of your own home - even small changes to maintain physical activity may help reduce A-fib risk.
Manage your stress
Every day, it seems like we're faced with more and more stress-inducing tasks that can lead to adverse health outcomes if not managed correctly. When feeling overwhelmed or anxious, the best thing to do is remember to take a moment for yourself - pause and take some deep breaths. Even simple grounding exercises like focusing on a few items in your environment one at a time or counting in multiples of five can go a long way in helping combat the effects of stress. This becomes all the more important during this festive season when the hustle and bustle often leave us frazzled; never disregard any symptoms you may be experiencing that are out of the ordinary, as they could very well be indicative of an underlying issue. A merry Christmas should stay merry - don’t let stress ruin your holiday!
The holidays are a time where we often overindulge in high-calorie foods and alcoholic beverages. This can have dangerous consequences for our physical health. However, there are ways to learn how to deal with the triggers that lead us to drink more than we should during this time of year. One way is through the Reframe app, which helps you keep track of your drinking and supports you with fun activities you can do every day. By using tools like the Reframe app, you can take back control of your holiday drinking and ensure that you stay safe and healthy during this festive season.