Did you know that the most heart attack deaths tend to occur on three specific days during the holiday period? In a national 2004 study published in Circulation, researchers at the University of California at San Diego and Tufts University School of Medicine found that there are 5 percent more heart-related deaths during the holiday season, and Christmas Day, Dec. 26 and New Year's Day are the biggest days of the year for heart attacks.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardio-thoracic surgeon and the host of "The Dr. Oz Show," has great advice about the hurricane of factors that make these days so dangerous, and what you can do to enjoy them safely.
Oz says there are things we do during the holidays that are actually toxic to us, especially if we're not in tip-top health to begin with. Excess drinking, salty, heavy meals and a lack of exercise all contribute to poor health. And holiday travel can lead to missed medication doses and difficulty in finding adequate medical care.
"We're also delaying our medical care," Oz says. "And it's a very stressful time."
Forty-four percent of women and 31 percent of men report increased stress over the holidays, according to a 2006 survey by the American Psychological Association.
Limit drinking; Never have two drinks in a row
Alcohol is acutely toxic to the heart, Oz says. It can literally irritate the heart muscle and increases the body's autopilot response to boost your blood pressure and your heart rate. The heart's natural pacemaker gets thrown off, and so does your heartbeat.
If you're drinking quite a bit more than usual, you change the way the heart responds," Oz says.
Alcohol in moderation is good for you in some cases, so you don't have to cut it out entirely, but keep in mind that you should never have two drinks in a row.
"Have one drink of alcohol, then a glass of water," Oz advises. That will also make you feel better the next day, because hangovers are primarily the result of dehydration of the brain.
Avoid high-fat foods; Never have food in both hands at the same time
Studies show a high-fat meal can lead to dysfunction in artery lining for six to 12 hours after eating, Oz says, adding that "you spend your entire holiday season having fatty food."
That dysfunction makes the heart vessel spasm, so if you already have a little bit of blockage, it closes off the vessel even more, and that can lead to a heart attack.
Most of the food choices at holiday parties and family gatherings "are sources of saturated fats," Oz says. "Arteries will actually spasm down … and finally very little blood can pass through there."
Oz advises avoiding fried appetizers and any fats that are solid at room temperature, such as frosting. And he has a simple tip to avoid overeating.
"Always keep one hand free to shake hands," he says. At no time during a party should you ever have food in both hands simultaneously.
Know how your feelings affect your heart
"Part of the reason we need the comfort food is because we're stressed," Oz says. "Your family is hardwired to get on your nerves."
The Circulation study found that people may feel stress from having to interact with relatives, having to absorb financial pressures such as purchasing gifts, traveling expenses, entertaining, decorating and having to travel.