Holidays should be times of fun and enjoyment. For most people, these special days—whether it’s Christmas, Independence Day, or Thanksgiving—can seem like a perfect time to let go in order to indulge in rich foods and alcoholic drinks. But did you know that this can be harmful to your health…and possibly even life-threatening? In this post, I will discuss why and provide an overview on what you can do during these times to maintain your best health and prevent holiday illness, so that you can spend your day focusing on enjoying the occasion.
The Holiday Heart Syndrome
For many people, holiday overindulgence simply means the addition of a few extra pounds or an inch or two around the waistline. However, too much food, sweets, and alcohol can do more damage to your body than ruin a diet. It can lead to something called the Holiday Heart Syndrome.
What is the Holiday Heart Syndrome? Namely, it is when overeating and overindulging in alcohol and food lead to an irregular heartbeat.
For instance, this can happen if you don’t typically drink alcohol, but then decide to have a few at a holiday party. It can also happen if you normally have one or two drinks but decide to indulge in large quantities of alcohol at once. The alcohol, along with the massive amounts of food typically consumed during this time, can put stress on your heart, causing you to develop an irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is serious as this can increase your chances of experiencing a stroke, heart attack, or heart failure.
One important fact to understand about the Holiday Heart Syndrome is that this is a condition that can affect anyone—even those who do not have a heart condition and are otherwise healthy.
Symptoms of Holiday Heart Syndrome
- Fluttering sensation in the chest
- Racing heartbeat
- Pounding heart
- Tightening in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling of confusion, dizziness, or anxiety
While the best thing to do is to avoid getting this condition in the first place, if you do happen to find yourself experiencing these symptoms, don’t hesitate; tell someone and seek medical attention immediately.
Staying Healthy during the Holidays
As you can see, it is important to take care of your health every day—regardless of what your current health status is. The following are some tips (some obvious) to help you stay your healthiest…everyday.
◊ Make a decision to not overeat
Large meals put stress on your heart and can lead to uncomfortable or dangerous symptoms—especially if you already live with health conditions. Make a vow to yourself now that you will start each day with a healthy breakfast that includes a serving of protein. Before going to a family gathering or an event, eat a small snack; never go into a meal starving (as this will almost guarantee overeating). Avoid overindulging in dishes that are covered in creamy sauces; aim to maintain your heart-healthy eating choices of lean meats and vegetables. And while it may be tempting, limit your second helpings. It is okay to have a sweet treat or a serving of dessert, but keep your health in mind by keeping your portions small.
◊ Put effort into limiting salty foods
This is important, especially if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, as salty foods can immediately shoot up your blood pressure, causing you to feel ill. If you live with heart disease, this can trigger an angina (pain) episode and increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. If you already have a diagnosis of heart failure, too much salty foods can also lead to a heart failure flare-up. While it might take some planning, it is not impossible to limit salt intake during the holidays. Plan ahead by finding recipes that are low in sodium and avoid adding salt at the dining table. While it may take some self-control, it is worth it, because your health is worth it.
Need some tips on eating low salt? This article will help.
◊ Set a limit for both alcohol and caffeine
If you drink, try to have no more than two alcoholic drinks each day. Limit caffeine intake to two caffeinated drinks daily. Both caffeine and alcohol can dehydrate you and increase your risk of getting an irregular heart rhythm. Once you reach your limit, consider enjoying some non-alcoholic beer or decaffeinated after-dinner coffee as healthier alternatives instead.
◊ Dedicate 5 minutes to deep breathing
Holidays, while exciting, can also be a stressful time. When you feel stressed, not only is your mind stressed, but so is your heart, which leads to increased blood pressure. Make it a rule to set aside 5 to 10 minutes each day to do one of the Quick Relaxation exercises discussed in this post. Turn on your body’s relaxation response through deep breathing, mindfulness, or visualization. By doing this, you will put your body at a healthier place during the holidays.
◊ If you take medications, remind yourself to take them at the right time, everyday
With all the festivities, it can be easy to forget a dose or two of your daily medications with the intention to double up on your next dose. Please do not do this, as this can cause you to fall ill. Take some time right now to use your smartphone to download a free medication reminder app, such as the Medisafe Medication Reminder. Remember, your medications can only help your body fight the disease if you take them exactly as directed.
I sincerely hope that you will keep these tips in mind during each holiday throughout the year, so that you can stay your healthiest and focus on what is important to you and make the most out of these special times.
*The information in this post can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.