What do you picture when you hear the words “holiday heart?” The phrase might evoke images of warm family gatherings, wintry outings with friends that end with hot cider, or even chocolates. As lovely as these nostalgic scenes might be, “holiday heart syndrome” actually refers to an increase in emergency room visits and hospital admissions from an irregular heart rhythm that many people experience around the holidays. It can happen to anyone, even otherwise healthy people.
Before we address how to avoid and manage holiday heart syndrome, we should talk about what causes it. If you think about it, it’s not that surprising. After all, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, most of us run a marathon of sorts, attending and hosting family gatherings and other parties and often eating and drinking at levels of decadence that far exceed what we are accustomed to. If there is any conflict with family members or we are having a hard time making ends meet, we may feel extra stressed. On top of that, we might find ourselves fighting crowds at the mall to finish our shopping, traveling more, and sleeping less than usual.
Some of these factors wouldn’t even necessarily be considered “bad stress,” but they can still have a detrimental effect on our health. Each one has the potential to put our hearts at risk and when they are combined, that risk can increase exponentially. At the very least, the irregular heart rhythm that characterizes holiday heart syndrome could leave us feeling depleted and sick, and at worst, it could lead to stroke in high-risk patients.
For those who suffer from underlying heart problems, the dangers are similar, but the body’s ability to bounce back from the stress is decreased. Consider that someone who has congestive heart failure (CHF) already deals with the dangers of fluid retention. It follows that if they ingest significantly more salt than normal during the holidays, they might find themselves in trouble. There’s also the danger of “heart attack snow,” the heavy, wet kind that puts some people at risk of suffering a heart attack when they exert themselves during shoveling.
Based on all these risk factors, many of which are a natural part of this time of year, holiday heart syndrome might feel unavoidable. However, there are steps you can take to prevent it, and they are not complicated:
- Take some time to take care of yourself. Focus on your breath, say a prayer, and spend some time reflecting on all the reasons you have to be grateful.
- Put your energy into helping others. You might be surprised how much your stress level decreases when you take the focus off the busyness and commercialism of the season and help someone less fortunate.
- Keep an eye on what you eat and drink. Overdoing it can impact your cardiovascular system and put extra strain on your heart.
- Get some exercise. It will help you manage stress and will burn some of those extra calories you’re bound to consume.
Even when the holidays are over, these are all great ideas for taking care of yourself. Here at Liberty HealthShare, we encourage our members to make prevention a priority because we care not only for the health of our members but also for the wise stewardship of the funds we all share to meet the healthcare costs of our community. We hope you enjoy a warm, healthy holiday season with your loved ones.