Not to dampen your holiday spirit, but statistically there are more heart-related deaths around Christmas week than any other time of the year. Exactly why this phenomenon occurs has been debated ever since "Holiday Heart Syndrome" was first discovered more than 30 years ago.
Some speculate harsh winter weather may be one reason for this annual spike, though that is fairly easy to debunk. Holiday Heart Syndrome isn't unique to colder states or even the northern hemisphere – it has been reported in places like New Zealand and Australia where summer is just beginning in December.
So why are there more deadly heart attacks between Christmas and New Year's Day? Smriti Banthia, MD, a Franciscan Health cardiologist with Franciscan Physician Network Indiana Heart Physicians in Indianapolis, says a likely culprit behind Holiday Heart Syndrome is on your plate and, especially, in your glass.
"People tend to splurge during the holidays and, for some, that can be very dangerous," says Dr. Banthia. "Excessive alcohol consumption, such as binge drinking during a holiday party, can trigger atrial fibrillation, also known as afib. This irregular heart rhythm can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and even heart attacks."
Combining excessive drinking with fatty, sugary, salty foods can lead to additional problems.
"When you overeat at a holiday party, your stomach distends and stretches," Dr. Banthia said. "This may over-stimulate the central nervous system and promote rapid, irregular heart rhythms."
Dr. Banthia adds that too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and fluid retention, two additional risk factors for heart disease. Consuming too much caffeine, whether it's coffee, tea or even chocolate also can trigger heart rhythm irregularities.
Over-indulgence, combined with a drop in exercise and other healthy habits can lead to extra weight gain during the holiday season, placing additional stress on the heart.
So how do you protect yourself and still have an enjoyable holiday? It’s as simple as relying on common sense.
"Unfortunately, people throw common sense out the window this time of year," says Dr. Banthia. "They frequently use the holidays as an excuse to take a break from making smart choices. That is where the trouble starts."
To have fun celebrating without putting your heart under additional stress, Dr. Banthia recommends following five simple suggestions:
Finally, Dr. Banthia says to find healthy ways to cope with the additional stress brought on by the holidays.
"Take a break from the festivities and do yoga, take a brisk walk, practice deep-breathing or other techniques that can help relieve tension and stress," she said. "Combine that with plenty of sleep and you will enjoy a healthy, happy holiday season!"
Lastly, don't put off getting help. If you feel chest pain, shortness of breath, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck or jaw or other heart attack symptoms, don't postpone treatment just because it's a holiday celebration. Call 911 for emergency care immediately.