Holiday heart syndrome: Seasonal celebrations can cause irregular heartbeat

Heart Health

by Roger Khetan, MD

Dec 31, 2016

This time of year, many of us are worried about putting on pounds from all those holiday treats and cocktails. But we should also consider how we could be harming our hearts.

A phenomenon called “holiday heart syndrome” — alcohol-induced atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat — is something we see this time of year in otherwise healthy individuals after several days of heavy alcohol consumption. While the link between alcohol and abnormal heart rhythms isn’t totally clear, it’s possible that drinking alters the electrical signals that move between heart cells and cause the heart muscle to contract.

Even small amounts of alcohol can cause holiday heart syndrome. A new study published this month in the journal American College of Cardiology shows it can also happen after having just one drink per day. We’ve all heard that one glass of wine every can be good for the heart, but that’s because previous studies have looked at the “plumbing” of the heart (or the arteries), whereas this study looks at the “electrical” system.

For this recent study, more than 900,000 people were followed for 12 years. Researchers found that the risk of atrial fibrillation grew by 8 percent for each daily alcoholic drink. The risk was the same for both men and women.

Why should you worry about atrial fibrillation? On its own, atrial fibrillation isn’t life-threatening. The concern is that it can lead to dangerous health problems like blood clots, stroke and heart failure. If it’s left untreated, it can double the risk of heart-related deaths and cause a five-fold increased risk for stroke.

Binge drinking during the holidays isn’t healthy for anyone, but people with a history of atrial fibrillation should be especially careful about avoiding or limiting alcohol. Like anything else, moderation is best for staying healthy and happy during the holidays.

About the Author

Roger Khetan, MD, FACP, FHM is an internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. Dr. Khetan received his medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and completed his internship at the same institution. Dr. Khetan completed a residency in anesthesiology at Allegheny General Hospital and a residency in internal medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He is a member of the American Medical Association, Dallas County Medical Society, American College of Physicians, Society of Hospital Medicine, Texas Club of Internists and the Texas Medical Association. Dr. Khetan is professionally interested in preventative health care, heart disease, geriatrics, asthma and chronic disease management. He also has interest in lobbying locally, statewide and nationally for patient and provider rights.

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