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Holiday heart health

Last Modified: December 16, 2019

Heart Health

This post was written by Charles Presti, MD, PPG – Cardiology.

The holidays are here, and while these special occasions are supposed to be a time of joy and reuniting with loved ones, for people with underlying heart disease or those at risk for heart disease, the season can also be a time of increased cardiovascular risk.

A recent study, conducted in Sweden, looked at nearly 300,000 patients who had suffered heart attacks. They found that the risk of having a heart attack was about 35% higher on Christmas Eve, which in Sweden is the main day of Christmas festivities.

So why are the holidays hard on our hearts? We’re going to touch on four important factors.

Calorie intake

To start, we tend to go way overboard on the calories at holiday gatherings. For most of us, these celebrations are packed with indulgent food … appetizers, casseroles, pies, cookies and candies – all the good stuff! It’s hard to say no or control portion sizes. But these items are high in sugar, salt and saturated fat – all the bad stuff! Overindulging in these foods can raise blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure – all of which can increase the risk for heart problems.

Additionally, eating a large meal makes the heart work harder to try to digest all the calories, and if you already have heart problems this can overstress your heart further.

So what’s the solution?  There are several ways to find balance here:

  1. Try not to go to a holiday feast famished. Eat a high-protein snack before you leave the house.
  2. Eat slowly and savor the food.  People who eat slowly generally tend to eat less because it gives the brain time to catch up to the stomach and signal the body that it’s full.
  3.  Focus on vegetables and whole-grain foods. They’re better for you and just as filling. Skip the fried foods.
  4.  Be mindful of portion sizes. Don’t skip those seasonal sweets, just have a smaller serving. 

The second risk factor is alcohol. There’s good evidence that alcohol in moderation can be beneficial for your heart, however too much can result in high blood pressure and also weaken the heart’s pumping ability. It can also result in the development of heart rhythm problems.  In fact, the so-called “Holiday Heart Syndrome” refers to the development of heart rhythm problems such as atrial fibrillation related to holiday binge drinking.

Again, the solution is moderation. Consider drinking alcohol only with a meal or try alternating between alcoholic beverages and sparkling water. Consume your alcoholic drink slowly; the alcohol will take several hours to be absorbed and metabolized.

Seasonal stress

The next risk factor is stress and exertion. The holidays are busy! There’s lots of shopping and cleaning and decorating and even snow-shoveling.  While it’s good to keep active, more is not necessarily always better, particularly if it results in increased stress. The combination of too much physical exertion combined with mental and emotional stress can be toxic for your heart.

Again, moderation is our friend.

  1. Don’t feel that you have to do it all yourself – ask for help when you need it. 
  2. Make sure you get plenty of rest even if it means saying no sometimes.
  3. Avoid working outdoors in the excessive cold or after consuming a big meal. This is like an unnecessary stress test, and
  4. Don’t forget to maintain your regular exercise.  Not only is this good for your heart health but it also helps maintain your weight and alleviates stress.
Know the signs

My final piece of advice is to speak up if you notice symptoms. It’s important that we don’t ignore signs of trouble, such as chest, jaw or arm pain, excessive sweating, or shortness of breath. Heart problems are not only more common during the holidays, but also, more likely to be fatal. One reason is our reluctance to acknowledge a potential problem and seek medical attention during the “happiest season of all”. We don’t want to miss out or worry loved ones, so we ignore the warning signs. Unfortunately, this can delay evaluation and treatment, which hinders your outcome.

So, enjoy the holidays and all the treats they bring, but practice moderation and don’t forget to listen to your body. 

Happy Holidays to all and to all a healthy heart!


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