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These holidays, don't be too merry: Your heart will thank you, doctors say

Tara Allen, a registered nurse and nutritionist in

Tara Allen, a registered nurse and nutritionist in Farmingdale, said she advises people to be mindful of their eating, drinking and sleeping during the holiday season. Eating and drinking in excess combined with a lack of sleep can occasionally cause Holiday Heart Syndrome, an irregular heartbeat that sends some revelers seeking medical help. Credit: Johnny Milano

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Eat and drink, but don’t be too merry, doctors warn.

Revelers who get carried away with the spirit of the season could end up with a case of Holiday Heart Syndrome, a type of irregular heartbeat also referred to as atrial fibrillation, doctors say. The number of people with the condition increases during the holiday season, they say.

Free-flowing drinks at holiday parties is the main culprit. Partnering booze with little sleep, salty foods, the stress of shopping and organizing family gatherings can leave some people breathless and lightheaded with heart palpitations.

“It’s actually a real phenomenon,” said Dr. Joshua Kugler, emergency department chairman at Mount Sinai South Nassau. “It’s not something you just read about in the paper or hear about anecdotally at a cocktail party.  … This is an acute, episodic irregular heartbeat that is mostly associated during the holidays when people are binge-drinking or their behaviors have just changed dramatically.”

Atrial fibrillation causes irregular beating in the upper chambers of the heart, interrupting how blood flows to the lower chambers. Untreated, it can increase a person’s risk for getting a stroke.

It is estimated that between 2.7 and 6.1 million people in the nation have AFib, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The term Holiday Heart Syndrome was first used in 1978 in a study — published in the American Heart Journal — that examined patients hospitalized with arrhythmia who had been drinking heavily or for a prolonged period of time during the holiday season.

People diagnosed with Holiday Heart Syndrome do not have any chronic heart conditions or problems with alcohol, Kugler said. Holiday Heart Syndrome is not related to other underlying illnesses requiring long-term treatment, though.

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“If you get AFib, it doesn’t mean you have a diseased heart,” said Dr. Joseph Levine, director of the Arrhythmia and pacemaker Center at St. Francis Hospital. “You might have a reaction to caffeine and alcohol and might have Holiday Heart. … Avoid the stimulants rather than subject yourself to a cardiac procedure that might have risks.”

Doctors are especially concerned about binge drinking as people hop from one party to the next. That doesn’t mean you are in the clear just because you didn’t chug an entire keg of beer.

Experts define binge drinking as consuming four or more alcoholic beverages per occasion for women and five or more for men.

Tara Allen, a registered nurse and nutritionist in Farmingdale, said she advises people to be mindful of their eating, drinking and sleeping during the holiday season.

“If you are going to have a meal out, then have your other meals at home,” she said. “Staying hydrated is very important, along with exercising and having some down time.”

Allen said many people also don’t get enough bright light during the winter, causing disruptions in the body’s natural circadian rhythms — making it hard to have the deep sleep necessary to take on the day.

“I tell clients to turn their attention inward,” Allen said. “Sometimes simply taking a minute to think about what we need and what our bodies need can make a difference. The gift wrapping can wait one more day.”

Kugler said patients who come to the emergency room with an irregular heartbeat undergo testing and have their medical history reviewed before being diagnosed with Holiday Heart Syndrome.

“One of the biggest issues is to find the underlying cause,” said Kugler, who oversees the Oceanside and Long Beach emergency rooms at Mount Sinai South Nassau. “If, for instance, someone has undiagnosed endocrine disease, that could also be a trigger of atrial fibrillation. It is imperative that the medical providers separate out organic disease from something that’s just a temporary problem like Holiday Heart.”

Once patients stop drinking and resume their normal healthy daily activities, the Holiday Heart Syndrome should completely subside, he said.

Levine said two of his patients were able to overcome their AFib by cutting out their consumption of wine and large quantities of diet soda.

“If they stop the alcohol and everything goes away, they don’t need a procedure,” Levine said. “That’s my goal.”

HOW TO AVOID HOLIDAY HEART SYNDROME

  • Drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Stay hydrated with water and avoid caffeine.
  • Skip fatty and salty foods for healthier options.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night.
  • See a doctor if you have heart palpitations, shortness of breath, fatigue or chest pain.

SOURCE: Newsday research

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