The holiday season can be as stressful as it is celebratory. From long lists of people to buy presents for to calendars overflowing with social obligations, it’s no wonder nearly half of Americans report an increase in stress and anxiety this time of year.
The mental and emotional stress, coupled with the physical stress of the near-constant stream of overindulgences that takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, can take a serious toll on the body’s most vital organ: the heart. In fact, it can lead to a frightening and surprising condition the medical community calls ‘holiday heart syndrome’.
“Holiday heart syndrome is when someone who is not known to have heart disease experiences a rapid irregular heart rate called atrial fibrillation amidst the stressors that are often higher in holiday times,” explains Shaline Rao, M.D., Director of Heart Failure Service at NYU Langone Hospital in Long Island. Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, can have serious consequences, including the formation of blood clots, an increased risk of stroke and heart failure, and organ damage, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
“Holiday stressors such as excess mental and emotional stress, alcohol, sugar, and salt also create a ripe environment for those with stable heart disease to become more symptomatic,” adds Rao. Not to mention, symptoms of holiday heart syndrome can come and go, which can make it difficult to determine when you’re most at risk.
Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., it’s vital that we all take stock of our heart health during the season of cookies, candy canes, family drama, and tight budgets that the holidays can be. Here are six key tips for making sure holiday heart syndrome doesn’t steal your holly-jolly.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Shaline Rao, M.D., is a physician and the Director of Heart Failure Service at NYU Langone Hospital in Long Island. Abhijeet Singh, M.D., is a physician and a Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiologist at the Stony Brook Heart Institute. Michelle Routhenstein, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.C.S., C.D.N., is a preventive cardiology dietitian at Entirely Nourished.
1. Prioritize sleep
You know sleep is important, but it can be harder to come by than usual during the holidays. Increased stress, a disrupted routine due to travel or social events, overstimulation, and financial worries can all keep you from getting the seven to nine hours of quality sleep you need each night, explains Abhijeet Singh, M.D., Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiologist at the Stony Brook Heart Institute. “Not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system and increase the level of the stress hormone cortisol in your body,” he says. Since your heart and immune system are intrinsically linked through cytokines, hormones, and neurotransmitters, any detriment caused to your immune system can unfortunately increase your risk of heart complications, according to research published in Vascular Biology.
Lack of sleep—and the low energy that follows—drives many people to caffeine, which can ultimately worsen stress levels and any predisposition to heart rhythm problems, he adds. That’s why it’s especially helpful to focus on good sleep hygiene whenever possible. Singh recommends going to bed at the same time each night (as much as you’re able!), turning off screens at least 30 minutes before bed, and adding relaxation exercises like meditation to your nightly routine.
2. Stay well hydrated
Hydration plays an important role in supporting overall cardiovascular health. For starters, it helps maintain optimal blood volume levels which, in turn, support healthy blood pressure, explains Singh. Proper hydration also helps keep blood from becoming too viscous or thick. “Thickened blood can be more challenging for the heart to pump, potentially increasing the risk of cardiovascular issues,” he notes.
Carry a reusable bottle of water with you to ensure you drink regularly throughout the day and reach the recommended 15.5 cups of water per day for men and 11.5 cups for women, suggests Singh. If you need the extra reminder, set alarms on your phone to cue you to take a few sips. Those who struggle with plain water might consider adding a hydration mix to their bottle, which offers the two-in-one benefit of providing flavor while adding vital hydration-supporting electrolytes to every sip.
3. Don’t skip out on meds
With schedule changes and travel abounding around the holiday season, it can be easy to forget to take your regular medications. “Missing taking medications can lead to ‘withdrawal’ in some cases, which may increase the chances of developing heart rhythm disturbances,” says Singh. Consider setting a reminder for yourself each day—try a recurring calendar appointment on your phone—to keep you on track with your medication routine. In general, it’s also helpful to take medications in the morning or at night when you’re most likely to be home (unless otherwise directed by a doctor), instead of in the middle of the day when you might not have them handy.
4. Take it easy on the hot toddies
From spiked ciders to mulled wine, alcohol is often part of the many social gatherings people pop around to this time of year, which can lead many to drink more often than usual. There’s a good reason to think twice before sipping down another eggnog, though; excess alcohol intake is one of the main triggers for holiday heart syndrome, according to Rao. Not only does alcohol consumption increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, but it also contributes to obesity, another risk factor for heart disease, per a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“Monitor your alcohol intake; keeping it light to moderate and—and avoiding binging—throughout the holiday season will significantly reduce the risk of holiday heart syndrome,” Rao adds.
5. Set boundaries
Before your calendar gets so out of control you can hardly look at it without panicking, set some boundaries. Planning what you can control during this time of year is key to keeping your heart healthy, according to Michelle Routhenstein, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.C.S., C.D.N., Preventive Cardiology Dietitian at Entirely Nourished. Before the non-stop parties really kick into gear, sit down and make a plan. “Acknowledge you do not have to go to every party, set boundaries, and schedule downtime,” she suggests.
You can also keep your routine feeling balanced by being extra mindful of your health on the days you do choose to celebrate. “Before you go to a party, commit to doing something healthy, which can be staying extra hydrated throughout the rest of the day, exercising for 30 to 45 minutes in the morning, or eating a nourishing breakfast that’s high in protein and fiber and low in sodium and saturated fat.”
6. indulge Wisely
While no one here is telling you to go without the special seasonal treats you look forward to all year, holiday indulgences can really add up—and ultimately contribute to sudden-onset heart issues. Routhenstein recommends trying your best to balance your food consumption throughout this time. This may look like eating highly nutritious whole foods throughout the week and letting yourself indulge at holiday parties on the weekends. It may also look like planning your plate strategically at gatherings. “Choose healthy options when you can and save a quarter of your plate for a holiday favorite so that you don’t feel deprived,” she suggests.
Want more tips? Check out this guide to eating more mindfully or this advice for maintaining a healthy weight without tracking calories.