Did you know that the holiday season can be risky for your heart? There's a term for it, called "holiday heart syndrome," and at this time of the year it's responsible for a large number of trips to emergency rooms and doctor offices.
What Exactly Is Holiday Heart Syndrome?
It's a term coined back in 1978 to describe the increase in incidents of heart attacks, arrhythmias, and high blood pressure that go hand in hand with increased alcohol intake over the holidays. Alcohol also exerts a depressant effect that can cause a slowing of brain activity, which lowers your serotonin levels. Plus, as alcohol’s effects wear off, you may feel anxious, which brings about an increase in stress hormones.
But alcohol isn't the only culprit. Holiday heart syndrome is often compounded by the overconsumption of salty holiday foods and caffeine, and a lack of sleep and exercise during the holiday season. Plus, holiday stress can exacerbate the problem because there’s a strong connection between your autonomic nervous system and your heart. Studies have found that patients who overreacted to mental stress had nearly three times the relative risk of having a cardiac event compared to those who didn’t. In fact, mental stress is a more accurate predictor of cardiac events than regular stress testing.
Fortunately, You Can Stop Holiday Heart Syndrome Before It Develops
- Limit Alcohol Consumption: While an occasional glass of red wine can benefit your heart, drinking too much wine, beer, or any alcoholic drink can have a negative impact on your heart. This is especially true if you have high blood pressure or a diagnosed arrhythmia. Plus, remember that alcohol contains sugar which can lead to inflammation. So, when it comes to alcohol, less is more.
- Make Smart Food Choices: At holiday celebrations, you want to reach for fresh vegetables and fruits as much as possible, as well as unsalted nuts, wild caught salmon, and the like. It's also important to limit salty foods and caffeine.
- Use Deep Breathing to "Exhale Your Stress": Proper breathing is a powerful way to reduce stress and tension and improve your heart health. When you feel stressed, you want to both inhale and exhale—slowly, deeply, and fully. Relax. After several breaths, you should be aware of how much more you need to breathe and how much relief it offers you.
- Reframe What's Stressing You: We can all reframe situations we have automatically labeled as stressors and choose to interpret them differently so we can react to them in a more positive manner. I call this “looking for opportunity in a crisis.” Instead of viewing yourself as a victim of the circumstance, realize your mind is a very powerful tool—one that can talk you out of stress. Reframing the situation in this way can help you to relieve holiday stress.
- Break Holiday Tasks Into Bite-Sized Chunks: Whether it’s gift buying and wrapping, shopping for and preparing holiday meals, decorating our home, making travel plans—or juggling everything combined—this time of the year can feel like an endless to-do list. Instead of tackling everything at once, take it one chunk at a time. Plus, look for what you can cross off your list altogether.
- Walk Away from Your Stress: In the frenzy of the holiday season, it’s easy to forgo your exercise routine. But exercise is actually a highly effective way to decrease anxiety and improve your resistance to stress. That’s because it releases tension from your muscles, and stimulates feel-good endorphins. Taking just a 20-minute brisk walk, whether outside or on a treadmill, can release stress and improve your mood tremendously!
Now it’s your turn: What do you do to avoid holiday stress?