imageThe holiday season is upon us, and that usually means one thing: holiday parties! Holiday parties are great. There’s a ton of food, booze, friends, and family. What’s not to love?

I hate to be a downer, but there is one thing that may temper the fun: the effects this kind of over-indulgence can have on your heart, which can result in both temporary and permanent negative health effects.

One common syndrome we often see around this time of year has even been nicknamed “the holiday heart syndrome.” Holiday heart syndrome is a real medical phenomenon that occurs when one consumes large amounts of food, alcohol, caffeine, and salt.

Symptoms can include heart rhythm disturbances – also known as atrial fibrillation – where the heart beats very quickly and in an irregular way, a weakened heart (also known as cardiomyopathy), congestive heart failure (CHF), and even heart attack. Atrial fibrillation can result in other serious health complications including stroke. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this can’t happen to you or your loved ones: atrial fibrillation is actually the most common heart rhythm disorder in the world.

Excess alcohol, coupled with the stress of the holidays, puts us all at higher risks for health issues. This year, especially if you have existing heart problems or high blood pressure, avoid having excess alcohol with your holiday meals. Stick to around 1 alcoholic drink an hour (at most) not totaling more than 2 drinks for women and 3 for men, and always make sure that if you are drinking, you’re not driving (drunk driving is a dangerous but entirely avoidable behavior everyone should make sure they and their loved ones don’t partake in.)

If your holiday season is particularly stressful, find ways to reduce and minimize the stress of things like travel (pick your travel dates wisely, don’t go on the busiest days), gift shopping (make this year a Secret Santa or White Elephant year so each person only has to buy one gift), and food prep (it’s okay to buy a few things pre-made. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you may even want to go out for your holiday dinner to avoid the stress of cooking altogether.)

Other contributing factors: caffeine and dehydration. I’m not asking not you t quit coffee cold turkey for the next two weeks (because for most of you, I realize that’s not going to happen), but you can make sure you’re sticking to your morning cup of joe only and avoiding adding on a post-dinner coffee to every party or meal you attend. Alcohol and caffeine together can be dangerous not only because they make your heart work harder, but because the effects of caffeine can mask your level of intoxication, meaning you may feel that you’re more capable of things like driving than you actually are. Also, having caffeine late at night will reduce your quality of sleep, only adding to the list of behaviors you’ll be doing (in varying degrees) that aren’t great for your health. Remember to drink lots of water and keep the coffee and alcohol to a minimum.

Its always important to avoid over-eating. When you eat a large amount of food in one sitting, it causes your stomach to expand and stretch in order to accommodate the meal you just consumed. That distention of the stomach can result in a stretching reflex that can stimulate the nervous system and initiate fast heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation. Instead of eating two helpings of food before your brother or sister had even finished their first, eat your meal in smaller portions over time. Have a conservatively small plate to start and let that settle. You can always go back for more once you’ve given your body proper time to digest.

Another common problem that can precede holiday heart syndrome is excess salt consumption. Our bodies need a certain amount of salt, but on average, we as American’s consume way too much on a daily basis already (I’m talking more than double what we should be having.) When we consume too much salt, our bodies hold onto fluid and cause our blood pressure to rise. For your holiday recipes this year, cut the salt you’d normally add in half. You probably won’t notice the taste difference and everyone will have a little less post-meal bloat.

If you or your loved ones have a history of high blood pressure, heart valve problems, or heart failure, it’s important to note that an increase in blood pressure and high amounts of fluid in the body can also precipitate atrial fibrillation development. In addition, in people with CHF, the excess salt can worsen heart failure and increase shortness of breath and swelling.

Know the symptoms of holiday heart syndrome, so you know what to look out for:
• Rapid pulse rate
• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain
• Swelling in the ankles or feet

In some cases, the person’s heartbeat can become so fast that they pass out (called syncope), and in severe cases, a heart attack can occur.

Knowing what you know now, it’s easy to see why heart attacks are much more common during the holiday season. In fact, deadly heart attacks occur most commonly on Christmas Day, compared to all other days of the year. The second most common day? The day after Christmas. Third is New Year’s Day. Seeing a pattern?

If your or anyone you’re with begins to display any of these heart symptoms, go to the hospital immediately and call 911 if appropriate.