The holiday season is a time to enjoy family, eat abundant meals and celebrate with parties and presents. It’s also a time that can bring serious health risks. Not only does the average American gain a few pounds during this season, but there is an annual nationwide increase in heart attacks, arrhythmias and visits to the ER due to heart-related issues.
The good news is that, with the right precautions, you can have a great holiday celebration while staying heart-healthy. Here are some of the major risk factors for heart issues during the holidays – as well as what you can do to avoid them.
1. Binge drinking. Although we often think of binge drinking as an activity done by college students, it’s incredibly common during the holidays by people of all ages. Binge drinking increases the risk of heart attack by more than 70 percent, according to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. It also contributes to long-term arrhythmia risk and can lead to an acute episode of atrial fibrillation, called “holiday heart syndrome,” that occurs in otherwise heart-healthy individuals.
What to do: Moderation is key when it comes to alcohol consumption. In fact, light drinking may be associated with some health benefits, like reduced blood clotting and increased HDL, or so-called “good” cholesterol. Enjoy one or a maximum of two drinks with dinner; just don’t let that turn into four or five. In terms of alcohol type, it may be better to stick with wine or beer rather than hard liquor.
2. Overeating. One of the best parts of the holidays are the homemade meals. Unfortunately, the nonstop feasts are often filled with foods high in sodium, sugar and carbohydrates. These types of foods can lead to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, which are major risk factors for heart attacks.
What to do: You don’t need to deprive yourself of food, but be smart about it. A good strategy for big meals is to analyze the spread of food before putting anything on your plate. Decide which foods you will eat, sample and skip altogether.If you’re thinking about getting seconds, wait 20 minutes as that is when our bodies begin to feel full.
3. Increasing stress levels. Planning, shopping, baking, cleaning, traveling – it’s no surprise that the holiday season brings heightened stress levels for many. According to the American Heart Association, stress can negatively affect your heart health by increasing risk factors, like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, as well as risky behaviors like smoking, physical inactivity and overeating.
What to do: Lower your stress by making time for yourself, even if it’s only 15 or 30 minutes each day. Other good ways to relieve stress are to maintain your regular exercise schedule, meditate, go for a relaxing walk or even just take a nap on the couch.
4. Delaying medical treatment. Despite decades of public education campaigns, one of the biggest barriers to life-saving heart treatment is that many people delay seeking it. This problem is even worse during the holidays, as people may ignore symptoms because they are traveling, holding a party or spending time with family.
What to do: Don’t let the holidays cause you to ignore symptoms for which you would otherwise seek treatment. Call 911 immediately for medical emergency symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or a cold sweat.
The holidays are a wonderful time to enjoy and reconnect with loved ones, but remember to always make your health a priority. By following a few easy steps, many holiday-related cardiac events can be prevented. As we head into the new year, a strong, healthier heart is a goal we can all work to achieve.
Dr. Anthony Magnano is a Ponte Vedra resident and cardiac electrophysiologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside. For more information on Dr. Magnano and his specialty treating atrial fibrillation, visit AfibJax.com.