The holiday season is well and truly upon us, and that means an abundance of family, friends, feasts and festive Christmas drinks.
But while all of those things help make the holidays a heartwarming time of year, a couple of them — particularly the last one — can also be very tough on your heart.
Nearly 40 years ago, American medical researchers first described Holiday Heart Syndrome, a condition where people with no history of heart problems develop a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, due to excessive drinking.
“Episodes usually followed heavy weekend or holiday sprees, resulting in hospitalization between Sunday and Tuesday or in proximity to the year-end holidays,” the researchers observed.
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In 2013, Portuguese doctors revisited the clinical data and agreed that alcohol is definitively linked to arrhythmia, especially if the patient doesn’t have a history of heart problems.
So how can you tell if your heart is feeling the brunt of holiday excesses?
The most common symptom of Holiday Heart Syndrome is heart palpitations, but other signs include chest pain, fainting (caused by your heart not pumping enough oxygen to your brain) and shortness of breath.
But a 2011 study showed that arrhythmia can also occur without any obvious symptoms, meaning cases often go undiagnosed.
That’s a problem because the most common form of arrhythmia seen in Holiday Heart Syndrome is atrial fibrillation (AF), which can cause blood clots to travel to your brain and provoke a stroke, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
AF also increases your risk of heart attack and heart failure, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about Holiday Heart Syndrome, however. The Portuguese study from 2013 suggests that future research explore the role of genetics, and look into factors like the type of alcoholic beverage and the speed at which drink is consumed.
How to enjoy the holidays without the heart syndrome
To reduce your risk of being struck down by Holiday Heart Syndrome, doctors recommend going easy on the booze.
If despite your best efforts, you still suffer a case of alcohol-induced arrhythmia, you may be asked to refrain from drinking altogether.
Dr. Leslie Cho, head of preventative cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, also suggested in a blog post that holiday revelers cut back on foods that are heavy in sugar, salt and cream.
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But that’s not to say you have to avoid holiday indulgences entirely — Cho says it’s all about moderation.
“Oftentimes people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, you know I can’t have anything,” Cho said. “No, you can have everything you want — except you must have it in moderation and be mindful of what you’re eating.”
“Moderation” might sound like a tough ask during the holidays, but it could help save your heart.