How to Avoid 'Holiday Heart Syndrome' and Other Cardiac Events This Time of Year
4 min. read
The holiday season is here and so is the annual warning about taking on too much stress and straying from healthy habits. Heart attacks are more common during the holidays, many studies over the years have confirmed.
Studies have also confirmed “holiday heart syndrome,” referring primarily to alcohol-induced atrial arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Overall, cardiac events this time of year can be triggered by unhealthy changes in diets, higher alcohol consumption, stress from holiday chores, strained finances, planning for travel and entertaining — and a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Heart Association. "The most important aspect of holiday heart syndrome is that it is reversible," states the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Unfortunately, some people may ignore the signs and symptoms of a heart attack during the holidays, dismissing them as just stress from running so many errands. Holiday heart syndrome can also cause more subtle changes for heart failure patients in the days and weeks after the holidays.
Heart failure is when the heart is too weak to pump blood through the body as it normally should. The heart keeps working, but the body’s need for blood and oxygen isn’t being met. More than 6 million Americans live with heart failure.
“They tend to overeat and over-drink and over-stress — and those are big factors,” explains Sandra Chaparro, M.D., cardiologist and director of the Advanced Heart Failure Program at Baptist Health Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “So, we end up seeing patients with decompensated heart failure with more frequency.”
Decompensated heart failure refers to symptoms that are obvious and can affect overall health, such as lung congestion which may cause coughing, wheezing or make it harder to breathe. You may also feel tired and find it more challenging to exercise or even do everyday chores. It may lead to abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).
Dr. Chaparro emphasizes that your health routine should never be interrupted by the holidays, especially if you take medications for underlying health issues.
“Don’t smoke and if you drink, do so in moderation,” says Dr. Chaparro. “As we say, it’s important to know your numbers, such as glucose (blood sugar), cholesterol and blood pressure. It’s vital to decrease stress levels and take your medicines as prescribed. Follow up with your doctor as needed. Nothing needs to change regarding your health during the holidays.”
Stress is something that we all encounter every day. And that’s when the body releases certain stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, to deal with a stressful situation, explains Andrea Vitello, M.D., cardiologist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.
“And for a small period of time, that’s probably beneficial to be able to deal with a stressor,” said Dr. Vitello. “But in the long run, if you have prolonged exposure to cortisol and epinephrine levels — that can actually be very harmful to the cardiovascular system. They can raise your blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate.”
Top Risk Factors
Here are factors associated with heart attacks this time of year, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) and American College of Cardiology (ACC).
Stress – Activities such as last-minute gift shopping, traveling and entertaining guests can lead to emotional and physical stress. Shopping for gifts can generate financial pressure. These strains can spike the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body. People with high cortisol levels are five times more likely to die of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular causes, studies have found.
Skipping medications – Busy holiday partakers can often skip their medications, forget them when away from home or are unable to get refills in a timely manner.
Holiday weight gain – The few extra pounds so many people gain year after year can have lasting effects.
No exercise or too much exercise – People say they’re too busy to exercise during the holidays, or try to get in shape too quickly to look better.
Overeating and drinking – Eating heavy, high-fat and high-sugar meals causes blood pressure and heart rate to increase, taxing the heart and digestive systems. As a result, one may experience heartburn and chest pains that mimic heart attack symptoms. Likewise, too much alcohol also strains the body, making the heart pump harder to get blood to peripheral arteries.
Too much salt – High sodium intake can also have an immediate effect, causing fluid retention that makes the heart have to pump harder.
With prevention and moderation, it’s possible to enjoy the holidays and stay heart healthy. Here are risk-reducing tips:
Get medication refills in advance. That way you don’t have to put up with the hectic holiday rush.
Keep a regular workout/exercise routine. Don’t embark on a drastic “pre-holiday” workout.
Listen to your body. Several signs of a heart attack can mimic how people can feel after eating a big meal or rushing around, such as shortness of breath or chest pains.
Look out for friends and family members. In addition to existing cardiac patients, older people, diabetics and those with other underlying health issues are at higher risk of heart attack.
Get prompt medical care. If you feel unwell, don’t delay treatment. Seek emergency (911) or urgent care.
Preventing Holiday Emergencies and Meltdowns
Learn more about what you can do to combat the stress of the season from the latest Baptist HealthTalk podcast with host, Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., and a panel of experts from Baptist Health South Florida.
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