The holidays are upon us! Between visiting with family and friends, holiday feasts, shoveling snow, and all those sales at the mall, make sure that you are taking time to keep your heart healthy.

Why are heart problems more common during the holidays?

There are many factors that affect the increase in heart attacks, strokes, atrial fibrillation (or afib), heart failure (CHF) and other heart-related conditions around this time of year. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, heart-related mortality is at an all-time high during the holiday season.  Here are the most common contributors:

1. Stress. Did you prepare enough food? When will you find time to clean? Are you ready to entertain friends and family? No matter what your plans are for the holidays, there will always be a least a few stressful moments. Emotions can reach an all-time high – especially if you are dealing with family issues, financial pressures or adjusting to changes after a birth or death. Learning how to relax yourself can lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate and relax tense muscles.

The solution: Take some deep breaths. If you know you will be stressed shopping or preparing for a party, plan ahead so you have less to worry about the day of. Make sure to get plenty of sleep, proper nutrition and exercise so you are ready to take on the year end celebrations. If you find yourself stressing about more serious life issues, talk with your doctor.

2. Overexertion. It can be easy to overwork yourself by running around to stores, trying to keep up with plans, putting up decorations and even shoveling snow. Being active and working out is good for your heart, but the combination of doing too much and the cold weather can put extra strain on your heart.

The solution: Try delegating tasks to others, or don’t be afraid to ask for some extra help. You could ask relatives and friends to bring dishes to a holiday get-together so it’s less work for you.

Be aware of your schedule and don’t pack these next couple weeks with too many plans. It’s okay to turn down invites – especially for relaxing nights in – or to take tasks off your own to-do list if they’re not truly necessary. 

If you’re not used to physical exertion, be careful shoveling snow. You’re likely to be unaware of just how much you’re exerting yourself with the cold temperatures and multiple layers – putting yourself at risk for a heart attack.

3. Overeating unhealthy foods. Holidays are all about the food. It is easy to forget about serving size when you want to try everything. The problem is many common holiday foods are high in salt, saturated fat or sugar, which can increase blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Overtime this can lead to diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, when your body tries to digest a large amount of food, it overworks your system and increases your heart rate.

The solution: Try bringing a healthy side dish (like a salad or a modified version of a classic) to your next get-together. Remember serving sizes next time you grab your plate for holiday dinner. Keep your plate mostly protein and veggies and eat slowly to give your body time to digest. If you can’t pass over a favorite dish, only take a small serving.

4. Excessive alcohol consumption. While a glass of red wine here and there can be beneficial to your heart, too many drinks can cause the heart to beat irregularly. Alcohol can weaken heart muscles and cause more pressure on the heart. “Holiday Heart Syndrome” is a term used to describe the increase in arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation or other irregular heart rhythms that doctors see around the holidays – typically from drinking too much alcohol.

The solution: Limit the number of drinks you consume. It can be easy to drink more than you usually would in social situations, but that is no excuse for not keeping your control. Try only drinking alcohol with a meal as opposed to just casually having a drink in your hand all night. Or switch up every other drink with a glass of water or sparkling water. 

How to prevent holiday heart problems

When faced with any of the above factors, make sure you are aware of how your actions might affect your heart. Don’t be so quick to dismiss chest pain as heartburn because it might be a heart attack.  Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Pain in arms, jaw or neck
  • Dizziness or a headache
  • Nausea or vomiting

Be aware of other cardiac symptoms such as palpitations/irregular heartbeats, shortness of breath, leg swelling, early fatigue, and sudden loss of consciousness.

Take steps to protect your heart well before the holidays arrive. Make sure to get regular checkups and know your numbers, like blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, to help you understand your heart risk.

Being aware of your heart health and the choices you make during the holiday season can be lifesaving.

Dr. Akshay Khandelwal is an interventional cardiologist and the President of the American College of Cardiology Michigan Chapter. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

If you are experiencing a heart issue, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.

How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz to find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.

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