Here’s What Cardiologists Want You To Know About ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome’

Photo: Stocksy/Trinette Reed
The holidays are a time of celebration—a time to indulge not only in quality moments with family and friends but also in good food and drinks. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying yourself during the merry-making season, imbibing a bit too much may put you at risk for a condition known as alcohol-induced atrial arrhythmia, aka “holiday heart syndrome.”

“Holiday heart syndrome refers to heart issues that occur due to overindulgence in salty foods and alcohol,” says Merije Chukumerije MD, FACC, RPVI, a sports and exercise cardiology specialist and a partner with Philips Sonicare. “The increased salt and alcohol can cause irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation, which is when your heart beats abnormally.”

Experts In This Article

Holiday heart syndrome also refers to an increase in heart-related symptoms in people who already have heart disease, says Dr. Chukumerije. “Millions of Americans with underlying heart disease, heart failure, and arrhythmias who overindulge in salty foods and alcohol, can have a problematic retention of fluid in their body and an elevation of their blood pressure, leading to worsening symptoms,” he explains.

If you do have concerns about your heart health this holiday season, it’s always best to talk with a trusted medical professional.

What causes holiday heart syndrome to develop in people without heart disease?

Despite the fact that new cases of holiday heart syndrome appear year after year, researchers still aren’t entirely sure how the condition develops in people without heart disease. However, as mentioned, we do know that there are two big triggers for this condition—alcohol and salty foods.

When it comes to alcohol and your heart, the evidence is conflicting. For example, antioxidant-rich red wine appears to offer protective benefits for the heart when consumed in moderation. But around the holidays, when having an extra glass of wine or a cocktail is the norm, alcohol intake appears to play a leading role in the development of holiday heart syndrome.

“We’re still trying to understand exactly the interaction of alcohol and the heart,” says Jayne Morgan, MD, creator of the Stairwell Chronicles and executive director of health and community education at Piedmont Healthcare. “There are theories, however, that alcohol negatively affects the nervous system regulating the heartbeat, thereby altering the electrical signals in your heart.”

Salty snacks, on the other hand, have a known impact on your blood pressure. “Most holiday meals are high in sodium, which raises blood pressure and increases water retention, leading to swelling in the legs and potential difficulty breathing if one develops holiday heart,” explains Dr. Chukumerije.

You might also want to be mindful of eating red meat, fried foods, and sweets, as these can impact the heart in different ways, says Dr. Chukmerije. Oh, and so can stress—something most of us experience in abundance around the holidays. If you have an underlying health condition, like sleep apnea, thyroid disease, or diabetes, you might also be at an increased risk for holiday heart syndrome, says Dr. Morgan. So, it's a good idea to check in with a doctor about managing those conditions prior to the holiday hustle and bustle.

3 tips to keep your heart healthy during the holiday season

If all this heart talk has you anxious about enjoying yourself during the holidays, that’s totally understandable—but Dr. Chukumerije recommends focusing on what matters. “I always encourage my patients to remember the reason for the season and focus on joy and spending time with family and friends,” he says.

And if you’re looking for ways to lower your risk of developing the condition, here are a few expert-back tips to keep in mind.

1. Enjoy holiday treats in moderation

Since the bulk of the risk for holiday heart syndrome comes from dietary factors, like alcohol and salty foods, it makes sense that keeping an eye on what you eat and drink is the best way to reduce your risk. Instead of cutting out treats entirely, though, Dr. Morgan recommends practicing moderation—especially when it comes to drinking alcohol.

And instead of restricting yourself from enjoying your favorite holiday snacks, try to focus on balance and making sure that you’re filling your plate with nutritious things, too. “This includes choosing foods that are rich in whole grain, fiber, low-fat protein, and a lot of fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Chukumerije.

2. Keep your body active and moving

Moving your body is one of the best ways to support your heart health, so it’s no surprise that experts recommend including movement in your holiday plans. “Find time for fitness, even if it’s just a walk around the block,” Dr. Morgan recommends.

If you’re someone who works a busier schedule around the holidays, it’s just as important to keep moving during those long work shifts. “If your job requires long hours at a desk…incorporate exercise spurts throughout your day,” Dr. Chukumerije says. “Go for a walk at lunch, take the stairs, or use a standing desk to minimize sitting time throughout the day.”

3. Monitor and manage your stress levels

The holidays are a fun break from routine, but that can also mean your stress levels reach new heights. Schedule changes, long travel days, cranky kids, and family gatherings can all contribute to your overall stress. But, something as simple as taking a few minutes to do a breathing exercise can be helpful, says Dr. Chukumerije. He recommends doing one to three minutes of deep breathing whenever you’re feeling that extra stress at work or home.

In general, though, the most important thing you can do during the holidays is to take care of yourself mentally and physically, says Dr. Morgan. “If you don’t make time for your wellness, you [may] be forced to make time for your illness,” she says.

Loading More Posts...