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What Is Holiday Heart Syndrome? Drinking Safely During the Holidays

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“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.1 Binge drinking, unhealthy foods, holiday stress, and lack of sleep can create a perfect storm for heart issues.

What Is Holiday Heart Syndrome?

candy canes on snow, holiday heart syndrome
Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

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. This problem becomes more common during the holiday season, hence the term “holiday heart.”

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.2

So, how does alcohol increase heart rate?

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. This is why your heart may race when you drink alcohol. And the more you drink, the more you increase your risk of holiday heart syndrome.

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8 Easy & Delicious Nonalcoholic Drink Recipes

Trying to avoid alcohol? Looking for new things to serve or drink over the holidays? Download these 8 easy-to-make nonalcoholic drink recipes.

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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
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting

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.3 When in doubt, it’s best to call your doctor and discuss the holiday heart symptoms you’re experiencing.

Tips for Safe Holiday Drinking

heart ornament on tree, holiday heart syndrome
Photo by Mauro Sbicego on Unsplash

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!

Stay hydrated

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.

Relax

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.

Get in touch with our team today, or learn more about how it works.

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Written By:
Ashley Cullins
Ashley Cullins is a writer with a passion for creating engaging, understandable content on complex topics like addiction and mental health. She has over five years of experience writing for healthcare websites and publications. Having experienced addiction first-hand in her family, Ashley deeply connects with Ria Health’s mission to make treatment easier and more accessible. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her daughter, reading, and cooking.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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