Protect your heart from holiday heart syndrome

December 11, 2017

Interview with Joshua Buckler, M.D., Chief of Cardiovascular Services and Medical Director of the Swedish Comprehensive Atrial Fibrillation Network, on how to protect your heart from holiday heart syndrome.

  • Holiday heart syndrome most often occurs in people with healthy hearts
  • Overindulging in alcohol or food can lead to holiday heart syndrome
  • A rapid, irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation is the most common presentation of holiday heart syndrome

The holidays are here, and it’s time to celebrate with friends, family, and loved ones. Is the culinary expert in your family preparing a menu filled with decadent holiday dishes, delectable desserts, and adult beverages that are as delicious as they are festive? We hope you enjoy every savory sip and bite – in moderation of course. 

We are committed to your health and wellness, and want you to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a disorder known as holiday heart syndrome (HHS).  We also want to help you avoid it altogether with these tips that will keep your heart healthy this holiday season.

What is holiday heart syndrome?

If you’ve never heard of this syndrome, you’re not alone. Most cases of holiday heart syndrome occur in otherwise healthy people who’ve never before had an issue with their heart. The condition is named so because it occurs most often during the holiday season when people are likely consuming more alcohol than usual.

Holiday heart syndrome is most often characterized by a rapid, irregular heartbeat, also known as atrial fibrillation. This disorder can occur after drinking alcohol in excess, and it is linked to stroke, heart failure, and heart attack. Continued alcohol consumption after experiencing a holiday heart episode may also lead to changes in the heart’s structure, leaving you vulnerable to chronic atrial fibrillation. 

The term ‘holiday heart’ actually refers to several different abnormal heart rhythms induced by alcohol use,” says Joshua Buckler, M.D. “The most common one is an arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation, or AFib, in which the top chambers no longer contract but instead quiver and cause the bottom chambers to pump erratically. 

While the exact reasons for this syndrome are not known, it can occur in habitual, infrequent, and non-drinkers following a binge. Holiday heart syndrome may also affect people who are suffering from stress and/or dehydration.

“Theoretically, anyone who consumes alcohol is at risk for HHS,” says Dr. Buckler. “However, the greater amount of alcohol in the bloodstream, the greater the risk. Alcohol is a toxin to heart tissue, and can cause heart failure when consumed in excess. Unfortunately, we still do not understand why this occurs, or why some people are affected by relatively small amounts of alcohol, yet others never develop HHS despite alcohol abuse.”

Symptoms of holiday heart syndrome

If you experience any of the following symptoms, please seek medical attention to avoid complications such as stroke, heart attack, or heart failure:
  • Fluttering sensation in the chest
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Pounding heart
  • Tightening in the chest
  • Experiencing shortness of breath
  • Feeling confused, dizzy, faint or anxious
“Some people who experience atrial fibrillation display symptoms of a rapid or irregular heartbeat – sometimes described as fluttering or ‘butterflies’ in the chest, while others are completely asymptomatic,” says Dr. Buckler. “If you cannot detect an irregularity in your heartbeat directly, then you should monitor for symptoms such as shortness of breath when you exert yourself, a decrease in your exercise tolerance, or sudden fatigue that you cannot otherwise explain.”

Four ways to reduce your risk of heartbeat abnormalities

Protect your heart this holiday season and at every celebration throughout the year with these easy tips:
  • Drink alcohol in moderation (e.g., one drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men).
  • Drink caffeine in moderation; too much can increase your blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Eat smaller meals that are low in salt and sugar to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
  • De-stress with a bit of exercise, meditation, or deep restorative breaths each day.

"As with many good things in life, moderation is the key,” says Dr. Buckler. “We do know there is a relationship between the amount of alcohol consumed and the risk of holiday heart syndrome. Typically, if alcohol consumption is kept to less than two drinks for men and one drink for women in 24 hours, then the risk should be very low.”

Now that you know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of holiday heart syndrome, and how to lower your risk, we hope you have a safe, healthy and happy holiday season. 

More tips:

Reducing holiday stress 

Protecting your heart

If you or a loved one are in need of expert cardiovascular care, our team of skilled physicians the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute are ready to provide innovative treatment options, tailored to your specific needs.