Nov. 22, 2011 -- With Thanksgiving around the corner, doctors have an important message: Too much wine with dinner (or too many beers during football) can trigger abnormal heart rhythms.
"It's called holiday heart syndrome," said Dr. Marc Gillinov, a heart surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and author of "Heart 411." "It's a heart beat that's usually chaotic, irregular and faster than your normal heart beat."
The most common abnormal heart rhythm, atrial fibrillation, occurs when the upper heart chambers quiver instead of contracting regularly, allowing blood to pool inside the heart. In a healthy person who had a few too many drinks, the fibrillation is usually fleeting. But if it persists, it can lead to congestive heart failure or stroke.
"If that blood is allowed to sit still for long enough it clots," said Gillinov. "If the heart squeezes out a clot, it can lodge in the small arteries of the brain and cause a stroke."
The phrase "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 did have was too many drinks.
Since then, several studies have confirmed alcohol's heart rhythm-disturbing effects.
"Heavy alcohol use can lead to dehydration," said Dr. Malissa Wood, co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. "It can also deplete electrolytes like potassium and magnesium. And it may also affect the way the heart responds to adrenaline in your own body."
If your heart starts racing or beating irregularly, stop drinking and sit down.
"Try to cough or drink some cold water," said Wood. "That can actually reset the heart rhythm."
But if the feeling persists for five minutes or you have chest pain and shortness of breath, seek medical attention.
Holidays Way Heavily on Hearts
To avoid holiday heart syndrome, avoid drinking more than you would any other day.
"Excess alcohol in susceptible people can trigger abnormal heart rhythms any time of the year," said Gillinov. "We just see it more around the holidays because people are drinking more."
Gillinov said the holidays can still be special with fewer drinks.
"Enjoy the holidays, but make sure you enjoy them in moderation," he said. "Think of your heart. Do some special things, just not too much of any one special thing."
Staggering drinks throughout the night and getting enough water can help too.
Heavy meals can also trigger heart problems. Salty gravies and stuffing can cause a dangerous rise in blood pressure, forcing the heart to work overtime.
"Again, it's just moderation -- whether it's food or alcohol," said Wood.
Although the holidays pose special challenges to heart health, they also offer unique opportunities to boost it.
"The holidays are a great opportunity to give your family the gift of better health through information," said Wood. "Heart disease is the number one killer in women and men. And we can prevent it by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, watching salt and fat intake, not smoking and controlling blood pressure."