What Is Holiday Heart Syndrome?

Too many toasts at gatherings can lead to this uncomfortable condition.

During parties and family gatherings around the holiday season, it's possible you—or someone else in attendance—could experience holiday heart syndrome. Essentially, it's a condition brought on by drinking too much alcohol.

However, holiday heart syndrome doesn't have a formal definition, Regina S. Druz, MD, of the Integrative Cardiology Center of Long Island and Holistic Heart Centers of America, told Health.

"It's an observation that people who drink a lot may wind up getting admitted to the hospital with palpitations or arrhythmia, often caused by atrial fibrillation," Dr. Druz said. (Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib, is an irregular heartbeat that occurs when the upper chambers of the heart—the atria—pump blood too quickly, getting out of sync with the lower chambers and disrupting your heart's ability to distribute blood throughout your body.)

Here's what you need to know about holiday heart syndrome if you plan on celebrating with a few glasses of wine during the festive seasons.

How Did It Get Its Name?

The name dates back to the 1970s, when a doctor coined it to describe the volume of otherwise healthy patients showing up around holidays with arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats) after binge drinking.

But despite the name, the condition isn't restricted to festive occasions. "Holiday heart syndrome could be common any time an individual uses alcohol excessively," Dr. Druz said.

What Is It About Alcohol That Leads to Holiday Heart Syndrome?

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) indicated that holiday heart syndrome may result from the connection between excessive alcohol use, high stress, and dehydration—even though it may be more complex than that.

It may also have to do with how alcohol affects the cardiovascular system. A 2017 article published in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews noted that alcohol does not allow the heart to contract appropriately. Researchers from a July 2021 study published in Clinical Autonomic Research said that just small amounts of alcohol can lead "to an increase in sympathetic ["fight or flight"] activity and a decrease in parasympathetic ["rest and digest"] activity, resulting in an autonomic imbalance…"—meaning that heart rate will start to get higher.

Ultimately, arrhythmia can be the result of those conditions, with alcohol at the root of the issue.

What Does It Feel Like to Have the Condition?

If you get holiday heart syndrome, here's how it'll feel: One moment, you'll be chatting with relatives, refilling your glass, and nibbling on apps or dessert. In the next moment, you may feel shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, or heart palpitations (a feeling that your heart is beating faster than usual), Dr. Druz said, adding that people can even feel lightheaded or pass out.

AFib is also the most common form of arrhythmia with the syndrome, as indicated by the NLM. "The hallmark symptom if someone is in atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rate," Dr. Druz explained.

How Concerned Should You Be About It?

It's important to know that AFib is associated with a heightened risk of a stroke due to blood clots, Dr. Druz said. A stroke is a serious business, and holiday heart symptoms (chest pain, dizziness, heart palpitations) can feel worrisome. So if you suspect you have holiday heart syndrome, what should you do?

That's a tricky question to answer, Dr. Druz said, since it depends on your specific situation and risk factors for heart failure. If you have a history of heart problems, err on the side of seeking medical help, Dr. Druz added. And, if your chest pain lingers beyond 20 minutes, it's also wise to seek help, which can possibly include visiting an ER.

The good news is that holiday heart syndrome is reversible, per the NLM. "The consensus is that once you stop consuming alcohol, holiday heart goes away," Dr. Druz said.

But that doesn't mean the condition is benign, Dr. Druz added. "The heart is a first responder, reacting to things that go on in your body." That is, the effects of your alcoholic beverages are felt everywhere, but your heart is first to send up an alert that things have gone awry.

"Listen to your body, and if something seems off, it probably is," Dr. Druz said.

Even if you do have just a fleeting episode during the holiday season, it's a good idea to follow up with your healthcare provider, Dr. Druz added, to see about getting an evaluation for atrial fibrillation.

How Can You Avoid Holiday Heart Syndrome?

Since it's the alcohol that leads to holiday heart syndrome, avoiding booze completely is the only surefire way to avoid those uncomfortable symptoms. AFib tends to be more common in women and older adults—especially those with high blood pressure or who are obese—but holiday heart syndrome can happen to anyone, Dr. Druz said.

There's no known number of drinks that will lead to holiday heart since every individual's tolerance differs, Dr. Druz added. Some behaviors, however, are known to increase the likelihood of arrhythmia when combined with alcohol, Dr. Druz noted—like not being properly hydrated or indulging in rich foods.

Dr. Druz's advice: Set sensible limits for what you'll eat and drink before you arrive at holiday gatherings—and keep in mind that alcohol is a toxin. "Yes, it's a social glue and fun to use," Dr. Druz said, "but people should know that as with any toxin, too much of a good thing can lead to effects that are highly undesirable and serious."

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