When Holiday “Spirits” Affect Your Heart Health

Back-to-back holiday parties on your schedule? Keep an eye on your alcohol intake in order to avoid “holiday heart syndrome,” which is the incidence of irregular heart rhythms (also known as atrial fibrillation) brought on by unusual and excessive alcohol use.

Nationally, the term “holiday heart syndrome” started in the late 1970s when emergency departments saw an increase in patients during the holidays with complaints of lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fatigue and even chest pain. The culprit? Usually atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is a racing or irregular heartbeat that can feel like a flutter or quiver in the chest.

“Excessive alcohol use during the holidays can increase the risk of AFib,” said Matthew “Casey” Becker, MD, an interventional cardiologist with Memorial Specialty Care Cardiology. “The holidays in general can stress your physical health when you combine increased alcohol consumption with rich, heavy foods and then add in a compromised sleep schedule.”

Many people with normal drinking patterns drink more than usual in November and December due to holiday social events that pile onto the schedule. Opportunities abound this year especially as society emerges from under pandemic restrictions that limited gatherings in 2020 and 2021.

Current guidelines define moderate alcohol consumption as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. While healthy people can experience holiday heart syndrome, even a moderate increase in the number of drinks a day or week can aggravate the health of people with existing risk factors for heart disease or stroke, like obesity or high blood pressure.

Tips to avoid holiday heart syndrome this season:

  • Chart a game plan now for how much you will drink and target non-alcoholic options to switch to after you hit your limit.
  • Prioritize nutritious appetizers and entrees over salty, sugary or processed foods.
  • Stay hydrated with water-based drinks. Alcohol dehydrates the body.
  • Minimize stress. Avoid engaging in stressful topics with family, friends or colleagues.
  • Make sleep a priority.

“At any time of the year, it’s important not to ignore heart palpitations, shortness of breath, a fast heart rate or lightheadedness,” added Dr. Becker. “Binge drinking can lead to AFib, but similar symptoms can also indicate a heart attack or stroke. If you have any of these symptoms, you should get checked out by a doctor sooner rather than later.”