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.
Because stress causes such unhealthy physical symptoms, Oz says people need to be in touch with the sources of stress.
Studies show that depression and grief "can literally break your heart," he says.
And for some people, the holidays are a time of loneliness and sadness. If you know someone who gets down at the holidays, make sure to call and check on them.
"Instead of using your hands to eat and drink … pick up the phone to call somebody who is in pain," Oz says.
Stay 6 to 8 feet from a burning fireplace
Fine particulates from fireplace smoke can lodge in your lungs and trigger a clot and a heart attack, Oz says.
"It can cause spasm of some of the arteries," he says.
There is no perfect distance because it depends on the room's ventilation, but he says try to stand 6 to 8 feet away.
Know the Symptoms of a Heart Attack
"If you think you're having symptoms of a heart attack ... call 911 and get a chewable aspirin," Oz says.
For women, symptoms of a heart attack include indigestion, shortness of breath and sweating. Men are more likely to get chest pain than women are.
If you think you're having a heart attack, call 911, then take an uncoated aspirin and chew it.
Click here for more information about "The Dr. Oz Show."