It’s a wonderful time of year with food, festivities, family, and friends all filling your heart with joy. For some of us, however, the holiday season can be overwhelming to the heart. Strokes, heart attacks, palpitations and other heart-related conditions increase during this time of year so be sure you take the time to stay healthy.

Overindulgence is a common culprit for unpleasant bodily functions at this time of year, so keep that in mind. However, if your heart is feeling a little off, it could also be a serious health issue such as holiday heart syndrome or a more serious cardiac illness. Both conditions can affect just about anyone.

In 1978, the late cardiologist, Philip Ettinger, M.D., first described holiday heart syndrome. It is an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can crop up in individuals who are otherwise healthy. While it's typically associated with excessive alcohol intake, Ettinger's study also found it occurred in those who consumed only moderate amounts of alcohol.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol intake includes binge and heavy drinking. For women, consuming four or more drinks during a single session is considered binge drinking while eight or more drinks per week is considered heavy consumption. For men, heavy consumption is defined as more than 15 drinks per week and binge drinking is more than five drinks at one sitting.

Additional contributors to the holiday heart syndrome include:

• Caffeine

• Sleep deprivation

• Overeating

• Stress

• High levels of sodium consumption

• Dehydration

One of the most common symptoms are palpitations; a pounding or racing heart felt in the chest, throat, or neck. If you notice an unpleasant awareness of your own heartbeat and or like your heart has skipped or stopped beats, you may be experiencing palpitations, which can be very serious.

Anyone experiencing palpitations, also known as an arrhythmia, lasting longer than a few hours should seek out medical attention. The most common type of arrhythmia associated with holiday heart syndrome is atrial fibrillation (AFib). When experiencing AFib, someone with a normal heart rate between 70 to 100 beats per minute can experience an increased heart rate of up to 150-200 beats per minute. While AFib is usually fleeting, it can lead to stroke and more rarely heart attack.

While it is a contributing factor, alcohol alone does not fully explain the problem. What alcohol does is it tends to amplify stress hormones that control your heart rate and blood vessels. Heavy alcohol use impacts your electrolytes and dehydrates you. Electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and magnesium, all of which play a key role in your heart rhythm, are depleted when you are dehydrated and affect the way the heart responds to adrenaline in your body.

The issue with the celebrating the holidays is we tend to take a vacation from our normal routine and indulge in unhealthy choices. Remember:

• More drinks and more food don’t make the holidays more special. No matter how many gatherings you face, portion control still applies. Plus, you’ll feel better in the long run.

• Always drink water between alcoholic drinks and stagger them throughout the time of the event.

• Salty, heavy meals and sides can raise your blood pressure, forcing your heart work overtime, triggering heart problems. So, go easy on the gravy.

• Make time to get in some exercise. The shorter and colder days tend to keep us indoors but make an effort to get to a gym or go on a walk.

• Stress can be a major factor to your heart health over the holidays so keep it in check. A long-to-do-list should include rest and recuperation regardless of what traveling, shopping, eating, drinking and decorating needs to be done.

• Get plenty of sleep. Your health suffers without it.

Don’t take it lightly if you experience a heartbeat that seems fast or odd after a holiday meal. Sit or lie down and stop eating and drinking. If the sensation continues for more than five minutes, call 9-1-1. Continued arrhythmias can require medications to help regulate heart function - and future problems.

Don’t take a holiday from your health goals this season. Your heart will thank you!

If you’d like more information on holiday heart syndrome, please contact Kansas City Cardiology at 816-220-1117.