Holiday Heart Syndrome Is Real—What You Need to Know

Even if you're perfectly healthy, overdoing it during the holidays can hurt your heart. Here's what you need to know.

The demands of the holiday season can be hard on your heart. First off, heart attacks become more common as the temperatures drop. And then there’s holiday heart syndrome—really: It’s a phenomenon first identified by Philip O. Ettinger, MD, in an academic paper published in 1978 in the American Heart Journal.

Dr. Ettinger described holiday heart syndrome (HHS) as the occurrence of an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia)—usually temporary—brought on by heavy drinking and eating that can be common at this time of year. Dr. Ettinger observed that hospital admissions for arrhythmia tend to increase in the days immediately following weekends and holidays, and that patients often over-indulged in the days preceding the onset of symptoms. In 2013, a group of doctors from Portugal surveyed the data that had become available on HHS in the intervening 34 years and concluded, in research published in Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia, that “alcohol has a definite role in cardiac arrhythmia, either by chronic abuse or by binge drinking” and recommended that when a patient has symptoms of arrhythmia, HHS should be suspected if the patient is drunk or has been drinking recently.

Nieca Goldberg, MD, cardiologist at NYU Langone Health says that patients should be aware not only of the symptoms of atrial fibrillation, but also the symptoms of premature ventricular contractions, which include a flip-flop feeling in the chest or the sensation of the heart skipping a beat. The symptoms of HHS can also include rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and fainting, according to Dr. Goldberg. If you experience these symptoms within a few minutes to a few hours after heavy alcohol consumption, it’s important to let the ER professionals know you’ve been drinking. To prevent HHS, Dr. Goldberg offers the following advice: “Exercise, try not to indulge in too many sweets, and drink in moderation, which means no more than two drinks per day for men, and one for women.”

Making the right food choices before a party could go a long way toward helping you avoid disastrous choices once the booze is flowing. To keep your risk of holiday heart syndrome to a minimum, here are some smart, healthy, and yummy choices you can make before your next holiday party. Once you’re at the event, try these healthy holiday eating tips from nutrition pros. And check out these stay-healthy tips to keep in mind during the holiday season.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.