An extra serving of turkey and stuffing, one too many glasses of eggnog or wine: The holidays have a special way of enticing us to overindulge in our favorite foods and drinks.
But for some people, that extra piece of pie can lead to some scary, heart-related symptoms.
Around this time of year, Irving Herling, MD, director of Consultative Cardiology in the Penn Medicine Heart & Vascular Center, regularly finds himself talking to his patients about “holiday heart” syndrome.
“This is a syndrome where people, who are otherwise healthy for the most part and don't have any underlying health troubles, experience heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness , or feel faint after they have been drinking or eating too much,” says Dr. Herling.
The name “holiday heart” was first coined in the late 1970s to describe the presentation of an acute disturbance of a heart rhythm (most often arising from the upper heart chambers or atria) in a person who had consumed a large amount of alcohol, such as during a holiday party. The condition seems to happen to people who are generally healthy with no predisposition for arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms).
"Physicians have recognized for years that patients who have partied over the weekend come in to see their doctors on a Monday morning complaining of irregularities of their heartbeat,” he says. "It's a common phenomenon."
While the exact cause of this condition isn’t known, Dr. Herling says that alcohol can increase the body's sensitivity to adrenaline, stimulating the heart to go into an abnormal heart rhythm. The most common is atrial fibrillation. Stress and dehydration can also play a role. Research backs up this theory, with a number of studies showing an association between binge drinking and onset of a heart rhythm disturbance.
Dr. Herling says many of the patients he sees are younger than a typical heart attack patient, but can span any age range and can happen to men or women, although it’s seen more frequently in men. He also says this problem crops up more often among occasional drinkers who overdo it only during the holidays or other special occaisons. Compared to chronic drinkers, their bodies don’t metabolize alcohol as quickly.
Some food and alcohol can pose more problems than others, too. Dr. Herling warns that undiluted alcoholic drinks, such as shots, are the most dangerous since they are more concentrated.
He offers these words of wisdom: “If you are going to drink, don’t drink on an empty stomach and try to limit yourself to one or two cocktails.” He also says foods that are fat-laden and sodium-rich should be consumed in moderation.
While "holiday heart" usually passes quickly and is not life-threatening, it is important to not ignore these symptoms.
“If your heart starts racing, running for more than a few minutes and it doesn't go away, and if you recognize that you might have been drinking more alcohol than usual and you're short of breath, it's worth having it checked out by going to your regular doctor or being seen in the emergency room,” says Dr. Herling.