How Holiday Binge Drinking Affects Your Heart

Even if you’re healthy, having one too many drinks could put your ticker in danger.

Medically reviewed in October 2021

Nothing says the holidays like a table laden with once-a-year dishes like brown-sugar glazed sweet potatoes, stuffing with gravy, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie and flowing alcohol. Faced with such feasts, it can be hard not to overdo it. But one glass of wine can turn into three, and that little taste of pecan and pumpkin pie can become a full slice of each. Add the general stress of the holiday season and you could trigger a heart rhythm disorder, most often atrial fibrillation (Afib), which causes a fast, irregular or “skipped” heartbeat. Because it tends to occur around the holidays, it’s referred to as holiday heart syndrome (HHS) and affects some people when they tipple a few too many glasses of wine or alcohol.  

Most cases of HHS occur in otherwise healthy people and can be triggered by as little as one drink in those with a sensitivity to it, but it most often occurs when binge drinking. It’s not entirely known why occasionally drinking too much can disturb the normal beat of your heart, or how much alcohol it takes to trigger Afib.

Because the body flushes alcohol from the system, HHS usually resolves on its own. But if symptoms last longer than 24 to 48 hours, medications or other treatments to restore a normal heart rhythm may be needed.

How it happens
Afib is triggered when disorganized electrical signals cause the upper chambers of the heart (atria) to beat quickly and irregularly. As a result, blood doesn’t move into the lower chambers (ventricles) normally. Symptoms can include a fluttering heart, racing heart, a “skipped” heartbeat and dizziness. Apart from Afib, heavy chronic drinking can also increase your risk of heart failure and abnormalities in the heart muscle, such as dilated cardiomyopathy.

If you notice any signs of Afib, see your healthcare provider. And get emergency help for any signs of a heart attack or stroke.

Heart rhythm problems such as Afib can usually be diagnosed with an electrocardiogram, which uses small sensors to monitor heart signals. If problems persist, your doctor may have you wear a heart monitor for one to two days. Other tests such as blood tests, echocardiograms (an ultrasound for your heart) or x-rays may be used.

Prevent holiday heart problems
While the risk factors for HHS are poorly understood, the bottom line is that it can happen to anyone. The best way to avoid it is to watch your alcohol intake: Binge-drinking and alcohol in large quantities may trigger Afib, so avoid over-imbibing. Drinking in moderation means one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men. However, sometimes even moderate drinking can lead to Afib, so if you notice symptoms, speak to your doctor.

More tips for a healthy heart
The holiday season can put stress on your heart in other ways. Use these tips to take care of your ticker:

  • Exercise. Working out is a great way to release tension. Consult your doctor before engaging in strenuous workouts.
  • Manage stress. Studies have shown that stress can make heart problems worse. If you feel yourself getting tense, take time out from the festivities, find a quiet spot and take some deep breaths until you calm down.
  • Cut back on salt and sugar. Remember to eat foods low in salt, saturated fats, added sugars and trans fats to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
  • Monitor caffeine. Too much caffeine can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, and possibly trigger Afib or heart palpitations.

Take these precautions and you’ll be able to enjoy the holidays without worries that your heart will skip a beat!

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