Alcohol can, at times, protect the heart. Studies about the benefits of red wine clog science journalists’ inboxes. But those benefits are predicated on low consumption. Come drinking season, the period that stretches from mid-November through Christmas and the New Year, many people wind up drinking too much (from a medical perspective at least, but probably too little from a personal one), and alcohol becomes a cardio health hazard. Overindulgence, referred to seasonally as “Holiday Heart Syndrome,” can through the ticker out of rhythm and cause full-blown atrial fibrillation or inhibit blood flow.
“Holiday Heart Syndrome is the development of atrial fibrillation with heavy drinking in a person without a history of heart disease,” says Dr. Muhammad Afzal, an electrophysiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “There is a dose-response relationship with the development of atrial fibrillation with alcohol consumption.”
The term Holiday Heart Syndrome was coined in 1978 by cardiologist Philip Ettinger, who documented a glut of patients admitted for potential arrhythmias that increase stroke risk after binge drinking at holiday parties. The more people drank, the worse their symptoms were. Most recovered, but Ettinger had to take away the nog.
Episodes of atrial fibrillation from binge drinking typically last between 24 and 36 hours in people without pre-existing cardiovascular disease. But in some cases, irregular heart rates can last longer and result in shortness of breath and fatigue. If atrial fibrillation occurs frequently enough and goes unaddressed, it can do serious damage. “Persistent atrial fibrillation can result in weakening of heart muscle and leads to a condition called congestive heart failure,” Afzal warns.
Although anyone who drinks too much at a Christmas party can get Holiday Heart Syndrome, lifestyle factors such as obesity, sleep apnea, sedentary lifestyle, and stress elevate the risk, putting most office workers in harm’s way.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure why heavy drinking leads to atrial fibrillation, but some suspect that alcohol increases activity in the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system and controls heart function. Messing with it could account for an irregular heartbeat. Dehydration can also trigger atrial fibrillation, and alcohol is a diuretic, so that doesn’t help. It’s entirely possible that Holiday Heart Syndrome is the result of a little of Column A and a little of Column B.
Luckily, atrial fibrillation from Holiday Heart Syndrome typically goes away once people stop drinking. Unfortunately, though, not everyone notices an irregular heartbeat — especially while drinking.
Staying hydrated and consuming potassium can reduce the risk of Holiday Heart Syndrome, so maintaining a strong banana-to-party ratio is key. Still, the best prevention is drinking less, or, less realistically, not at all.
“Patients do not have palpitations,” Afzal says. “Studies have shown that no amount of alcohol is safe for patients with atrial fibrillation.“
So if you’re short of breath at a holiday party, sit down, but maybe put the glass down first. There are worse presents to receive at Christmas than coal.
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