Holiday drinking and your heart: When should it be last call for alcohol?


Many of us like to enjoy cocktails at holiday parties, but it could lead to holiday heart syndrome.

The holiday season is a time of celebration, good cheer, and – often – overindulgence. That overindulgence can lead to individuals with no history of heart disease showing up in emergency rooms with racing hearts.

There’s even a name for this phenomenon: It’s called holiday heart syndrome.

What is holiday heart syndrome?

Physicians first began noticing a seasonal bump in patients showing up in emergency rooms with heart rhythm problems about 30 years ago. And it’s not surprising that we see this.

It’s common for people to go to multiple parties during this time of year. You go to one party and have a drink or two, go to the next party and have a couple more. It’s the cumulative effect of alcohol that can put people at risk, sending their hearts into atrial fibrillation, or AFib.

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular and rapid contraction of the upper chambers of the heart. Heart palpitations and a feeling that the heart is beating much faster than normal are the primary symptoms of atrial fibrillation; sometimes it is also accompanied by shortness of breath.

How much is too much?

Probably less than you think. According to the National Institutes of Health, moderate drinking is up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. A drink is defined as 8 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits.

Prevention of holiday heart syndrome is simple: Don’t binge drink. Binge drinking is defined as drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion at least once in a 30-day span. Over the holidays, it’s easy to cross the line into heavy drinking, which is defined as drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion 5 days or more in a 30-day span.

Even if you don’t drink much or at all, you may still suffer from holiday heart syndrome. Excessive food and salt intake also might contribute to the problem. It’s OK to have a few extra treats over the holiday, but make sure you aren’t overdoing it:

Your recommended daily calorie intake depends on many things, including your age, gender, and activity level. If you really feel like you need that extra slice of pie, make sure you work some additional exercise into your schedule over the holidays.

The American Heart Association recommends that most people consume no more than 1,500mg of sodium per day, so keep that in mind as you fill your plate and season your foods at the table.

Episodes of holiday heart syndrome usually clear up within 24 hours. Never assume, however, that any heart problems you are experiencing will clear up on their own. Always seek medical assistance whenever you experience heart problems, including holiday heart syndrome.

Enjoy this time of parties and good will. Just be reasonable about how often you raise a glass – or, for that matter, lift a fork – and you’ll avoid marring the holidays with a visit to the ER.