December 2, 2021

How You Can Avoid Holiday Heart Syndrome

Enjoy the holidays while keeping your heart healthy

A plate of holiday desserts featuring cupcakes, frosted cookies and candy canes

You’ve had the roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, fruitcake (and maybe some cookies, too) and a few glasses of spiked eggnog. And while certainly the holidays are all about celebrating with great food, friends and family, those good times often lead to overdoing it.

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Too much food, sweets and alcohol can do more damage to your body than just wrecking a diet, says cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD. It can lead to holiday heart syndrome. We talked to Dr. Cho to get a better idea of what this syndrome is, why it happens and how to cut it back.

What is holiday heart syndrome?

Holiday heart syndrome refers to heart issues that happen because of overindulging in salty foods and alcohol. While eating and drinking too much is something that can occur any time of year, it’s called holiday heart syndrome because the holidays — that time of celebrating with a continual flow of salty snacks and festive cocktails — is when we overdo it the most.

All of that salt and alcohol can cause your heart to beat irregularly, also known as atrial fibrillation (or AFib). In the short term, it can be simply an alarming side effect of a bit too much celebrating, but in the long term, it can lead to serious heart issues, including heart failure and stroke.

Why holiday heart syndrome happens

While people with preexisting heart issues are more likely to experience holiday heart syndrome, it can also happen to people without any heart issues.

“For many people, the holidays mean that special foods are suddenly in abundance, such as cookies, candy and rich dishes,” she says. “And it’s not just one meal, but a round of eating, drinking and making merry that is markedly different from the rest of the year.”

It’s also the constant presence of food that helps feed our tendency to go overboard. “We’re often surrounded by lots of food during this time,” Dr. Cho adds. “So whether you’re in the office or whether you’re with your family, you tend to eat foods that are very different than your normal diet.”

What are the symptoms of holiday heart syndrome?

The typical symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Heart palpitations: Sudden pounding, fluttering or racing sensation in your chest.
  • Lack of energy or feeling over-tired.
  • Dizziness: Feeling light-headed or faint.
  • Chest discomfort: Pain, pressure or discomfort in your chest.
  • Shortness of breath: Having difficulty breathing during normal activities and even at rest.

While people already dealing with heart conditions are more likely to experience holiday heart syndrome, they’re hardly alone. Even people without heart issues might notice a rapid heartbeat or skipped beats after drinking too much alcohol. That typically isn’t cause for concern.

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But everyone should be aware of the dangers and watch the intake of food to avoid these symptoms.

How to avoid holiday heart syndrome

Avoiding holiday heart syndrome isn’t all that hard, even if you want to take part in all the fine foods and drinks this time of year has to offer. The key to keep in mind is to plan ahead and take everything in moderation.

Have a game plan

Planning ahead when attending a party is important, Dr. Cho says. You don’t have to avoid rich foods altogether. However, she emphasizes being aware of what you’re eating and how much you’re eating can go a long way toward staying on track.

“Oftentimes people think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t have anything’,” Dr. Cho says. “No, you can have everything you want — except you must have it in moderation and be mindful of what you’re eating.”

She recommends having a smaller breakfast and lunch if you know you’re going to have a big dinner that evening. Another approach is to eat before you go to a holiday function, so you’re not tempted to overdo it. And if you’d like to have dessert (because Aunt Mary makes the best gingerbread yule log), just take a smaller slice.

Avoid excess

At the party, be wary of foods that are heavy in cream, sugar or salt. Also, Dr. Cho advises against drinking alcohol in excess. It’s okay to have a cocktail, she says, but enjoy it slowly, throughout the evening instead of binge drinking.

Stay active

What you do away from the holiday dinners and parties is just as important as what you eat and drink at them. Keeping up a regular exercise routine keeps you healthy, reduces stress and burns calories. By keeping your body healthy ahead of the holiday season, you lower the odds of long-term heart problems.

Relax

Holidays can be an extremely busy and stressful time of year. Set aside some time to rest and relieve stress — that can make a big difference in heart health, too.

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After-the-party considerations

It’s important to be mindful after a night of holiday indulgence, too, Dr. Cho says. Using a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like Motrin®, Aleve® or Advil® to relieve hangover symptoms can put even more stress on the heart.

“They tend to increase your blood pressure, too,” says Dr. Cho. “So, if they increase your blood pressure, some people end up having heart failure because it’s like a vicious cycle. So, it’s really important just to watch what you’re eating and doing.”

When should you go to the doctor?

First, be sure you’re up-to-date on your own health status. Visit your doctor for regular check-ups and make sure you’re properly treating any heart issues you may have.

If you have a clean bill of health and have not otherwise experienced that irregular heartbeat, the condition should resolve on its own. If issues, including shortness of breath and dizziness, persist, contact your healthcare provider.

If you already have heart conditions or risks, Dr. Cho recommends being on top of your diet while keeping a close eye on your weight and blood pressure during the holidays. If symptoms or numbers are concerning, she says it’s best to contact your doctor.

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