Last Updated on October 15, 2021
“Holiday heart” sounds like a warm and fuzzy term, but holiday heart syndrome is actually a dangerous phenomenon.
It refers to heart arrhythmia, and most frequently atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a racing or irregular heartbeat that can lead to serious complications if left untreated.
The term “holiday heart syndrome” was first used in 1978 because of the sudden increase in patients with atrial fibrillation on holidays and weekends. Binge drinking, unhealthy foods, holiday stress, and lack of sleep can create a perfect storm for heart issues.
Heart Health and the Holidays
Among its various impacts on the body, alcohol can cause heart arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) in otherwise healthy people. This can occur after an episode of binge drinking, or due to chronic, long-term heavy drinking.
Binge drinking is often defined as five or more drinks for a man, or four or more drinks for a woman within two hours. It is especially common on both weekends and holidays. As a result, it’s not surprising that the risk of a heart attack increases by about 15 percent during Christmas and New Year’s.
When you drink heavily, your heart has to work harder for several reasons.
For one thing, activity in the sympathetic nervous system appears to increase when you drink alcohol, as does the amount of blood pumping through your heart. Alcohol can also change the electrolyte levels in the blood, while causing you to release more stress chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Meanwhile, artery dilation may decrease with binge drinking. This can mean your heart needs to work harder to do its job properly, putting it under stress and potentially causing serious issues. In other words, the more you drink, the more you increase your risk of holiday heart syndrome.
How Long Does Holiday Heart Syndrome Last?
Fortunately, holiday heart syndrome caused by binge drinking typically resolves on its own—if you stop drinking when you notice you aren’t feeling well. Often, a faster heartbeat or small palpitations will go away within a 24-hour period.
However, you should call a doctor if you have had previous heart issues, or if you experience additional holiday heart symptoms like:
- Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
These more serious signs are associated with poor functioning of the heart, which can lead to complications like stroke and heart failure if left untreated. When in doubt, it’s best to call your doctor and discuss the symptoms you’re experiencing.
Tips for Safe Holiday Drinking
Here’s more good news: holiday heart syndrome is completely preventable. Follow these tips to take good care of your heart during the holidays:
Eat and Drink in Moderation
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying good food and drink at a holiday party. But avoid getting carried away with overdrinking or overeating. Limit both alcohol and caffeine, since both can cause dehydration and a racing heartbeat. Also, pay attention to how much sugar, salt, and fatty foods are on your plate.
Count Your Drinks
If you’re hopping from house to house or party to party, it’s easy to lose track of your alcohol consumption. Stay aware of how much you’re drinking and how quickly—or even better, set a drink limit before you begin. If you aren’t sure, two is a reasonable place to start.
For a helpful reminder, place some coins in your back pocket (equal to your drink limit). Each time you finish a drink, move one coin to your front pocket. Once your back pocket is empty, you’ll know that you’ve reached your limit!
Alcohol is dehydrating, so drinking plenty of water can help counteract its effects. Try drinking one glass of water after each alcoholic beverage. This can help you drink more slowly. Plus, people are less likely to offer you another drink when you already have one in your hand.
Stress increases your risk of holiday heart syndrome (and heart issues in general). Try meditation or breathing exercises to manage holiday stress, and decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. If meditation isn’t for you, engage in another activity that you find relaxing—like reading, drawing, writing in a journal, or listening to music.
Have a Party Plan
Follow some of our other tips for keeping party drinking under control:
- Pace yourself (ideally one drink per hour)
- Switch to beer or wine instead of hard liquor
- Practice phrases to use to turn down a drink
- Bring some tasty non-alcoholic beverages to share
- Find an accountability partner
Try a Moderation-Based Program
If you find that you frequently overdrink and have a hard time controlling it, you may want to consider a moderation-based program. These programs can help you reset your drinking habits without having to quit completely. After several months to a year, many people find they can eventually enjoy a glass of wine in a social setting without overdoing it.
Ria Health is one online program that lets you choose abstinence or moderation, and gives you support from anywhere via an app on your smartphone. We customize treatment to your goals and schedule, and offer access to online coaching, anti-craving medications, and much more.