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Ahhh, the holidays… the one time of the year we’re free to eat, drink, and be merry to our hearts’ content.  I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, but all of that merriment can do a number on your body.  Consider all the ways the holidays tend to assault our health:   there’s the extra pound of weight most of us gain during the holidays (which, sadly, rarely comes off the next year), the added salt and fat of those rich holiday goodies, the additional financial and family strain that are common this time of year, the workouts that fall by the wayside, and all those festive cocktails.   That last one can lead to what doctors call “Holiday Heart Syndrome,” a temporary disturbance in heart rhythm and/or function that usually occurs in folks who have no other health problems and is thought to be brought on by binge drinking.  So one minute you’re enjoying your third glass of champagne, and the next minute, your heart feels like it’s going to pound out of your chest.

The term Holiday Heart Syndrome was coined in the 1970s, when physicians began noticing an increase in heart rhythm disturbances in patients around the holiday season.  Most commonly, the sufferer of this syndrome is young, healthy, and does not normally drink in excess.  Imbibing a modest to large quantity of alcohol, though (which many of us do at holiday parties) can over-stimulate the electrical system of this otherwise healthy person’s heart and cause rhythm problems, most commonly Atrial Fibrillation.  Rhythm disturbances associated with Holiday Heart can also be caused by fluid overload, associated with all the salty foods we tend to eat during the holidays.  Luckily, most cases of Holiday Heart Syndrome go away on their own within 24 hours.  But some can persist or recur, increasing the sufferer’s risk of stroke or cardiomyopathy.

The most common symptoms of Holiday Heart Syndrome are palpitations, feeling like your heart is “jumping around” in your chest, and dizziness or fainting.  If you experience these symptoms, especially if you’re otherwise healthy and you’ve been back to the punch bowl a few times, your heart is telling you to stop drinking, sit down, hydrate well with water, and get some rest.  If the symptoms last for more than 5-10 minutes, it’s a good idea to go to the emergency room.  Even if they go away fairly quickly, though, it’s not a bad idea to tell your doctor; you could have a greater propensity toward heart rhythm disturbance in the future.

So how do we prevent Holiday Heart Syndrome?  According to one of TCAI’s Nurse Practitioners, D. Kay Zedlitz, ACNP, “the key is moderation.”  It’s okay to indulge in some festive food and drink, but don’t go overboard.  One alcoholic beverage per day for women and two for men is what’s widely considered moderate; if you go over your daily limit, consider abstaining the next several days to let your system rest.  Remember: alcohol is a toxin to the heart.  Try alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (preferably water) at holiday parties, and limit your proportions of rich, salty foods.  Your heart will thank you for it.

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