Holiday Heart – Celebrating Your Way To a Heart Attack

Drinking SantaThe holiday party season has officially kicked off. While Thanksgiving gives us a single day to demonstrate our ability to consume mass quantities of food and alcohol, the Christmas “season” gives us an entire month! No wonder it is the most magical time of the year.

Although magical, Christmas is not the healthiest time of the year. According to a study in the Circulation publication, “The number of cardiac deaths is higher on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on Dec. 26, and third highest on Jan. 1.”

What’s behind all this holiday doom and gloom? Say hello to Holiday Heart!

What is Holiday Heart?

I had the pleasure of learning about holiday heart several years ago from a doctor in the ER. The term first appeared in the late 1970’s when Philip Ettinger described holiday heart syndrome:

HHS (holiday heart syndrome) is the occurrence, in healthy people without heart disease known to cause arrhythmia, of an acute cardiac rhythm disturbance, most frequently atrial fibrillation, after binge drinking.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Heart?

Time for a good news/bad news answer. The good news: Alcohol can provide cardiovascular benefits when consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association (AHA) describes apparent benefits of moderate alcohol consumption due to the role of antioxidants, an increase in HDL (the good cholesterol) or anti-clotting properties.

Before you get too excited, exercise works better to increase HDL and an aspirin a day does a better job at providing anti-clotting properties. I can imagine people now planning for the best of both worlds – walk home from the Christmas party and pop an aspirin!

Now the bad news.   Alcohol can be addictive, cause liver disease, heart disease, and even cancer. Specific to HHS, excessive or binge drinking leads to dilated cardiomyopathy (heart disease), known to be a cause of not only cardiac failure, but also has been associated with atrial fibrillation and other cardiac arrhythmias.

These arrhythmias, while more common amongst heavy drinkers, can also appear in otherwise moderate drinkers going on a holiday “binge”.

How is that for a buzz kill?

What Are the Symptoms of Holiday Heart?

Holiday heart symptoms include an irregular or fast heart rate, shortness of breath, and/or dizziness. Although holiday heart is generally non-life threatening, the condition should not be ignored. If you are experiencing these symptoms, go to the ER and have yourself checked out, particularly if you have a pre-existing heart condition. The alternative is ruining everyone’s Christmas when you actually do have a heart attack!

How to Avoid a Holiday Trip to the ER

You don’t have to give yourself the gift of holiday heart this season. Take a few simple precautions:

  1. Pace Yourself – You don’t have to say yes to every invitation. Try to avoid consecutive nights of heavy drinking. When you do drink, spread the drinks out over the course of the evening. Having a glass of water every other drink is an effective pacing strategy.
  2. Drink Less – This one seems so easy, but may prove to be the most difficult. Success may have something to do with what kind of a drinker you are outside of the holidays. More moderate drinkers may be able to set a limit and stick to it. Heavy drinkers may just need to leave the party early!
  3. Drink More – Water, I’m talking about water. Alcohol is a diuretic. This means you pee a lot and could become dehydrated. Drinking a glass of water every other drink is also a part of your pacing strategy – remember?
  4. Eat Some – Food can slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream. Hopefully, this will keep you more sober so you can remember steps 1-3.

It’s the holidays – relax and enjoy yourself, but don’t forget to take care of yourself.


“The Truth Behind More Holiday Heart Attacks.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Tonelo, David, Rui Providência, and Lino Gonçalves. “Holiday Heart Syndrome Revisited after 34 Years.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 01 Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

“Alcohol and Heart Health.” Alcohol and Heart Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.

Photo credit: sameb / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA