'Tis the season for many of us of overindulging in champagne, spiked eggnog and hors d'oeuvres. And although pounds gained in December can be shed next year, the more immediate effects of holiday excess can be serious.
Dr. Curtis Rimmerman, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, warns that binge drinking and overloading on sodium can trigger abnormal heart rhythms. The condition, known as "holiday heart syndrome," can require emergency medical care.
"Your heart is basically beating very erratically, chaotically, and extremely fast," Rimmerman said. His patients have described the feeling as "like having a Mexican jumping bean inside your chest."
The term "holiday heart syndrome" was coined in 1978 when researchers detected heart rhythm abnormalities in 24 study participants, none of whom had a history of heart disease. What they all did have was too much to drink, too fast.
Since then, several studies have confirmed alcohol's heart rhythm-disturbing effects. The most common abnormal heart rhythm, atrial fibrillation, occurs when the upper heart chambers quiver instead of contracting regularly. Although it's often asymptomatic, it can lead to congestive heart failure or stroke.
As the moniker suggests, holiday heart syndrome peaks on weekends and at holidays.
"Not only will I see more patients," Rimmerman said, "but talk to an emergency room physician and, boy, are the emergency rooms hopping!"
Although alcohol alone can derail normal heart rhythms, its effects are exaggerated when mixed with caffeine. Rimmerman warned against the popular practice of mixing alcohol with energy drinks, calling it a "very bad combination."
Salty foods, such as holiday ham and pre-packaged appetizers, can lead to fluid retention and exacerbate heart rhythm disturbances. So, despite the season's temptations, maintaining a relatively normal diet will lower the risk of holiday heart problems.
Similarly, when it comes to alcohol, moderation is key. If you don't drink much all year, avoid drinking a year's worth in one night. And if you do drink regularly, avoid drinking more than usual, Rimmerman said.
If your heart starts racing or beating irregularly, you should stop drinking and sit down, Rimmerman said. And if the feeling persists for five minutes, you should seek medical attention.
Although the holidays pose special challenges to heart health, they also offer unique opportunities to boost it.
Gathering with relatives and talking about their health can offer insight into your own risks, Rimmerman said. "Heart health starts with genetics, so you really need to take an inventory of your family history," he said.
The holidays also mark the start of a new year, and for many, new habits.
"Use those new year's resolutions to your advantage," Rimmerman said. Quit smoking, exercise and eat a balanced diet low in animal fat and high in fruits and vegetables. Keep your heart healthy for holidays to come.