It’s not that warm, fuzzy feeling you get around that special time of year ... Holiday heart syndrome is the occurrence of an irregular heartbeat after bouts of acute binge drinking and other yuletide stressors, and it can happen in otherwise healthy individuals.

What is Holiday Heart Syndrome?

Live Healthy

Have you heard of holiday heart syndrome?

No, it’s not that warm and fuzzy feeling you get around this time of year, and it’s not what made the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes in the beloved Dr. Seuss book.

Holiday heart syndrome is the occurrence of an irregular heartbeat after bouts of acute binge drinking.

Although most frequently associated with atrial fibrillation, the condition can even occur in healthy individuals who don’t have underlying heart disease.

So how do the holidays come into play?

“Studies have found that heart attack risk increase to 15% during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays,” says Dr. Darlene Ramones, a family medicine physician at Straub Medical Center – Kapolei Clinic & Urgent Care.

“Holiday heart syndrome can occur after binge drinking. Binge drinking for men is consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in less than two hours, and for women it’s the consumption of four or more drinks,” Ramones explains. “Holiday heart syndrome can resolve on its own after the individual stops drinking, but it’s a prime example that too much of a good thing can be bad.”

Have fun celebrating the holidays, but party responsibly. Even one night of binge drinking – that's more than five drinks in under two hours for men, and more than four for women – has been linked to increased risk for heart conditions.

In addition to an increase in alcohol consumption, the holidays can introduce other stressors in the form of buying gifts, sitting in traffic and hosting out-of-town family members.

“A holiday party or visiting family can disrupt your regular sleep and exercise routine,” Ramones adds. “Diet can also get derailed with excess sweets, leftovers and various unhealthy foods lying around the house or at work.”

Though it can be concerning to notice a rapid heart rate or skipped beat, holiday heart syndrome isn’t necessarily dangerous on its own.

“Without the presence of other symptoms or a previous history of heart problems, the condition likely will resolve on its own,” Ramones says.

However, you should seek immediate medical attention if you have any of these associating symptoms:

  • Dizziness.

  • Difficulty breathing.

  • Chest pain.

  • Loss of consciousness.

“More serious complications of an irregular heart beat include heart failure and stroke, which can lead to death if not properly treated,” Ramones says. “Keep in mind a majority of holiday heart cases can resolve with abstaining from alcohol, but it’s important to be aware of your prior medical history and how you’re feeling so you can get help when needed.”

Your heart beats thanks to an electrical current sent out by pacemaker cells in the heart. If this system short-circuits, you can go into cardiac arrest.

A good strategy to avoid holiday heart syndrome and other health complications during the holidays is to practice moderation.

While this may be difficult to do, Ramones offers the following tips: 

  • Don't overeat – Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, the average American will gain 5-10 pounds. To avoid that, eat a healthy breakfast every day, and never go to an event starving so that you don’t overindulge. Monitor your portion sizes, try to resist going in for seconds, and drink alcohol responsibly. Be mindful and monitor your intake of salt, sugar and fatty food.

  • Limit alcohol and caffeine – Alcohol is one of the biggest sources of extra calories during the holidays. Enjoying one or two glasses of wine is perfectly fine at an event, but binging can be dangerous. Caffeine should also be limited. Excessive caffeine intake can cause insomnia and trigger an abnormal heart rhythm. Caffeine and alcohol also cause dehydration, which can lead to electrolyte imbalances and heart arrhythmia.

  • Exercise – It’s important to exercise at least 150 minutes a week, especially during the holidays. Exercise can reduce stress, improve your metabolism and burn off extra calories. Exercise also is good for your heart and can prevent a heart attack and stroke.

  • Try to relax – The holidays are stressful. It’s hard to prepare for holiday trips and host visiting family after a long day of working. Try to take a few minutes out of every day to simply relax. Set aside 10 minutes to meditate and do breathing exercises, which can decrease blood pressure, decrease heart rate and reduce stress.

“It’s also important to see your primary care physician (PCP) regularly and screen for any chronic health conditions that could trigger a condition like holiday heart syndrome,” Ramones adds.

If you’re in need of a PCP, take the stress work out of finding one by calling 643-4DOC (4362) or click here for a list of physicians from the Hawaii Pacific Health family of medical centers currently accepting new patients.



Published on: December 5, 2019