Thanksgiving is the typical kickoff to the holiday season. From the fourth Thursday of November until New Year's Day, many of us will attend gatherings of family, friends and coworkers to celebrate a variety of events hosted in honor of the season.

But lurking in the joy of the moments is the possibility that a number of party-goers will wind up in the emergency room in the wake of decking their halls. It's known as holiday heart syndrome and it can affect just about anyone.

The term, holiday heart syndrome was first coined back in 1978, by the late cardiologist Philip Ettinger following a 1978 study linking excessive alcohol consumption coupled with overeating and possibly a lack of sleep.

Holiday heart syndrome is an irregular heartbeat that can happen in individuals who are otherwise healthy. Often associated with binge drinking, the condition can also occur in individuals who consume only moderate amounts of alcohol.

Although “holiday heart” is mainly attributed to alcohol and excessive amounts of food, caffeine and lack of sleep can also figure into the problem. Patients often come in describing a sensation that their heart is pounding or racing. They're called palpitations and can be felt in your chest, throat, or neck. It may start with an unpleasant awareness of your own heartbeat and perhaps feel like your heart has skipped or stopped beats.

These irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia) can be very serious. If palpitations continue for more than a few hours you should seek medical attention. Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common arrhythmia in holiday heart syndrome and while the fibrillation is usually fleeting, it can lead to stroke or heart damage.

The exact means or trigger by which it works isn't clear. Alcohol has a tendency to heighten stress hormones such as adrenalin levels which control your heart rate and blood vessels. It could also be the result of alcohol's effects on electrolytes – particularly sodium, which plays a key role in your heart rhythm. Heavy alcohol use can dehydrate you, depleting electrolytes like potassium and magnesium, which affect the way the heart responds to adrenaline in your body.

A normal heart rate for most people is somewhere between 70 to 100 beats per minute. AFib can cause the heart rate to jump as high as 150-180 beats per minute. My advice? Moderation and consideration.

During the holidays, (not just in the winter months) we tend to take a holiday from our normal behaviors and overindulge in behaviors that can affect our health.

• The holidays can still be special with fewer drinks and a little less food. Portion control should still apply, no matter how many stops at multiple gatherings you face.

• Heavy meals can trigger heart problems. Salty gravies and stuffing can raise your blood pressure and force your heart to work overtime.

• Stagger your drinks throughout the night. Alternate water between adult beverages.

• Keep your stress in check. Make sure that long to-do list includes pacing yourself during the holidays in whatever you may be doing in relation to travel, shopping, eating, drinking and decorating.

• Make time for exercise. Shorter and much colder days tend to force us indoors. Go to the gym or local mall and walk before shopping.

• Get plenty of sleep. There's nothing like a long winter's nap to help you relax.

If you notice your heart, or that of a loved one acting "funny" without a reasonable explanation, such as physical exertion or sudden stress, it may be arrhythmia and medical help should be sought. Other symptoms might include dizziness, weakness and shortness of breath.

Here's to a safe and healthy holiday season. Cheers!

Dr. Michael J. Liston, MD, FACC is a cardiologist with Carondelet Cardiology Services and can be reached at 816-220-1117.