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Beware of Holiday Heart Syndrome

January 18, 2010

With most people still recuperating from the busy holiday season, it's time to focus on getting on track with your heart health. “Holiday Heart” isn’t as fun as it sounds. In hospitals, it describes episodes of atrial fibrillation that tend to occur during the holiday season, or other occasions for celebration which lead us to overindulge.

Holiday Heart HearlthCertain celebratory behaviors can lead the heart to speed up and become irregular, giving us chest discomfort, or throwing blood clots to either the coronary arteries (resulting in a heart attack), or the brain (resulting in a stroke) …or even cause death.

Most cases of Holiday Heart start as "paroxysmal atrial fibrillation," the Heart Disease column from About.com explains. That is an atrial fibrillation that starts suddenly, and after a time, stops just as suddenly. Patients will experience the sudden onset of rapid heart rate, palpitations, and often dizziness or shortness of breath. When their doctors do an ECG, they will see atrial fibrillation.

In many cases, atrial fibrillation is caused by underlying heart disease or by aging. Sometimes it has no identifiable cause. But in Holiday Heart, the cause is generally an unusual sensitivity to alcohol consumption.

Alcohol is known to produce atrial fibrillation if ingested in large quantities, even in "normal" individuals. Up to 60% of patients who engage in heavy binge drinking will develop episodes of atrial fibrillation. But some individuals are extremely sensitive to alcohol, such that even moderate amounts - two or three drinks, and sometimes a single drink - can trigger episodes of atrial fibrillation.

Health Central.com explains that Holiday Heart Syndrome can also occur as a result of:

  • Recreational drug use
  • Diet drugs like ephedrine
  • Cold remedies
  • Excessive caffeine or nicotine usage

Most patients recover fully and are somewhat chastened by their experience. Just remember, a “binge” of almost anything can poison an otherwise healthy heart, and damage a sick one. Give your heart a holiday and fill it with love and joy instead!