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Drinking in moderation can help avoid ‘holiday heart syndrome’

Overindulgence, particularly during holidays, may lead to atrial fibrillation, increased risk of stroke

Doctor listening to patient's chest with stethoscope
(Photo credit: Getty Images)

DALLAS – Dec. 20, 2023 – The holiday season is a time for celebration, but too much celebrating can be bad for your health.

December brings a notable bump in the number of patients who show up at hospital emergency rooms with what’s known unofficially as holiday heart syndrome – heart rhythm problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption, said Sharon Reimold, M.D., Professor and Vice Chair for Clinical Operations and Faculty Development in the Department of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Sharon Reimold, M.D.
Sharon Reimold, M.D., Professor and Vice Chair for Clinical Operations and Faculty Development in the Department of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern, holds the Gail Griffiths Hill Chair in Cardiology.

“It’s common for people to go to multiple parties during this time of year. You go to one party and have a drink or two, go to the next party and have a couple more. It’s the cumulative effect of alcohol that can put you at risk, sending your heart into atrial fibrillation,” noted Dr. Reimold, who is a cardiologist.

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular and rapid contraction of the upper chambers of the heart. The most common symptoms include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, chest pain, heart palpitations, and a feeling that the heart is beating much faster than normal. AFib is associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart failure.

Symptoms may be sporadic and usually clear up within 24 hours, but you should never ignore them. Always seek medical assistance whenever you experience heart problems, including holiday heart syndrome.

The condition doesn’t manifest only during the holidays. It can occur any time excess alcohol is involved. Too much food, particularly salty foods, can also be a contributing factor.

Federal health guidelines define moderate alcohol consumption as no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one a day for women. A drink is defined as 8 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits. Those guidelines also recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. The American Heart Association advocates limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day.

Studies have found a significant proportion of new AFib cases are linked with drinking too much alcohol. And once an episode has been confirmed, patients have a greater chance of AFib recurring in the future.

Dr. Reimold advises people in the holiday spirit to pay attention to how much they’re drinking and eating this season. Moderation is key, she said. Another option includes the growing market of nonalcoholic beers, alcohol-free wines, mocktails, and no-alcohol spirits, from tequila to whiskey to gin.

Dr. Reimold holds the Gail Griffiths Hill Chair in Cardiology.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty members have received six Nobel Prizes and include 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 21 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 3,100 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 120,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 5 million outpatient visits a year.