Dr. Campbell: Holiday heart syndrome

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — During the period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for acute illnesses tend to spike.

While the holidays are a joyous time when friends and family gather to celebrate the season, there can be significant health dangers lurking.

Between parties for Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve, many of holiday events involve lots of decadent foods, caffeine and alcohol. These foods often contain lots of fats, sugar, salt and excess calories. In addition, the holidays are filled with stress—last-minute shopping, family disagreements and financial concerns—all of which can have profound effects on the cardiovascular system.

The craziness surrounding holiday preparations also may result in inadequate sleep and this may further increase the emotional and physical stress on our bodies. Patients with underlying heart disease—and even those have never had heart disease–may face serious medical problems related to over indulgence.

1. How common are heart problems during the holidays?

The holidays bring a lot of stress along with the joy of the season. There can be significant impacts on your hearth health. In patients with underlying heart disease—particular Congestive Heart Failure or CHF—the holidays can present a particular challenge.

Overeating and the added salt that many holiday meals and goodies have can put heart patients at risk for a CHF flare. Patients with CHF can experience shortness of breath, swelling called edema and many can wind up in the hospital.

Many heart failure patients must maintain a fine balance in fluid intake during normal times and the holidays can make this even more difficult. In addition, patients with underlying heart disease may be at increased risk for heart attack during the holiday time due to increased physical activity (shoveling snow) and general holiday stress.

In patients without known heart disease, a syndrome known as holiday heart syndrome can occur.

2. What is holiday heart syndrome?

Holiday heart syndrome was first named by physicians in 1978 to describe irregular heart rhythms that seemed to occur during the holiday season after periods of heavy alcohol consumption. As originally described, this condition was most often seen in patients without underlying heart disease.

The most common heart rhythm disorder seen with holiday heart is called atrial fibrillation or AF. In AF, the top chambers of the heart (called the atria) begin to beat in a fast irregularly irregular manner.

Symptoms of holiday heart syndrome include palpitations, light-headedness, shortness of breath, fatigue and even chest pain.

3. What causes holiday heart?

In a word: too much of everything. When we overeat, drink too much caffeine or too much alcohol we cause our bodies to release increased levels of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones. This can raise heart rate and blood pressure and can result in arrhythmias and other cardiac problems.

4. What can we do to prevent it?

• Don’t Overeat: It is important to remember that during the period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, that the average American will gain five to 10 pounds. Make sure that you eat a healthy breakfast every day and that you never go to an event starving. Monitor portion sizes and enjoy all the wonderful treats of the season but do so responsibly. Avoid foods that are covered in creamy sauces and try not to go back for seconds.

• Limit alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol is one of the biggest sources of excess calories during the holiday period. While it is certainly OK to enjoy one glass of wine at an event, binging can have negative consequences. It is also important to limit caffeine. Excessive caffeine intake can cause insomnia and can precipitate heart rhythm problems. In addition, caffeine and alcohol can result in dehydration and dehydration can result in further disturbances in your electrolytes.

• Exercise: It is vital to exercise at least 150 minutes a week during the holidays. Exercise can help alleviate excess stress and can also help burn off excess calories. In addition, exercise, particularly resistance training, can help “jump start” your metabolism and can help you burn calories throughout the day. Exercise is also essential for your cardiovascular health and can health protect you from heart attack and stroke.

• Take 10 Minutes and breathe: The holidays are stressful. We often work long hours and prepare for trips and visitors during our downtime. It is important to take a few minutes out of every day to simply relax. A good way to accomplish this is to set aside 10 minutes of quiet time each day—simple meditation and breathing exercises can help lower blood pressure, heart rate and decrease the day’s stress.