Excess alcohol during holiday stress can upset the heartbeat, a condition called atrial fibrillation or afib.
The last month of the year is full of holiday parties, stress and extra opportunities to have a few drinks. And it can have a huge impact on your heart. Holiday Heart Syndrome is a term used to describe an irregular heartbeat and, in some cases, atrial fibrillation (afib), which is specifically associated with excessive alcohol consumption, a common occurrence during the holidays.
Vacation heart syndrome usually occurs in people who do not have existing heart disease, although whether new atrial fibrillation occurs depends on many factors.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder, and high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and being 65 or older are all factors that determine whether someone who drinks heavily will have or not those particular pacing issues. It’s unclear exactly how common holiday heart syndrome is, because people with it often don’t see a doctor. One thing is certain: heavy drinking, even on a single occasion, can trigger atrial fibrillation, a condition that has been on the rise for decades.
Drinking alcohol causes the heart to swell and increases the risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Heavy drinking on five or more days per month is considered binge drinking, and nearly 45% of current alcohol users are heavy drinkers. Nearly 13% are heavy drinkers. The amount of alcohol consumed varies from person to person. Binge drinking is defined as the consumption of five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours for men and four for women.
But even one or two drinks raises a person’s blood alcohol level, which can impact the heart’s natural rhythm and increase the risk of holiday heart syndrome. A study published in November 2021 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, involving 100 participants, mostly white men with an average age of 64, found a strong correlation between even moderate alcohol consumption and fibrillation. auricular. The researchers found that an episode of fibrillation was associated with a twice as high probability of having consumed at least one drink in the four hours preceding the event and with a more than three times higher probability of having consumed at minus two drinks in that time.
Another study, published November 2021 in JAMA Cardiology, compared factors thought to trigger afib, including caffeine intake, lack of sleep, dehydration, large meals, exercise, lying on the left side and alcohol consumption. The researchers found that alcohol consumption was the only factor that significantly increased the risk of afib. Alcohol inflames the lining of the heart and irritates the tissues. The chemicals in alcohol alter those in the tissues, disrupting the organ’s normal electrical rhythms.
How does holiday heart syndrome manifest?
Symptoms of afib can include irregular heartbeat, palpitations, dizziness, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest pain. During afib, a person’s heart rate tends to be quite fast, between 150 and 200 beats per minute. But the symptoms can also go unnoticed and later lead to a major heart attack.
During afib the blood is turbulent in the heart, and when this happens the blood is more likely to clot. If a clot develops in the left side of the heart, it can travel to the brain, limbs, or organs and cause an ischemic stroke. For this reason, some people with holiday heart syndrome (which your healthcare provider may diagnose as alcohol-induced atrial arrhythmias) may be put on blood thinners. An episode of atrial fibrillation puts you at higher risk for recurrent afib, which then puts you at higher risk for heart failure.
Long-term effects of atrial fibrillation
A study published in February 2020 in the journal Circulation found that recurrent atrial fibrillation is strongly linked to heart failure, stroke and death, and that alcohol consumption increases the risk of recurrent afib . Although some people have genetic predispositions that put them at risk for a first episode of afib, alcohol consumption is one of the risk factors that people can act on.
Treatment for holiday heart syndrome begins with immediately stopping alcohol consumption. Once you abstain from alcohol, the main treatment is to stay hydrated and get electrolytes. The majority of cases of atrial fibrillation in holiday heart syndrome resolve on their own, but there is always a risk of future episodes.
To reduce the risk of holiday heart syndrome, avoid binge drinking
With alcohol consumption being so ingrained in culture, the general population does not always recognize the true effects of alcohol consumption on the body. This is especially true for people with underlying heart conditions. The easiest way to avoid holiday heart syndrome is to limit your alcohol intake during the holidays. Do not exceed one drink per day for women and two for men on days when alcohol is consumed, which should not be every day. But even staying within these limits, the risk of dying from certain cancers and heart disease may increase.
To put your best holiday heart forward, the main lesson here is simply to limit alcohol consumption.