The holidays can be stressful for anyone, but doctors especially cringe at the thought of this season. That’s because at no other time during the year are people more likely to suffer from heart attacks as during the period from Thanksgiving Day through New Year’s Day. In fact, according to experts, Christmas Day and the day after are the top two days for cardiac deaths. Here’s why the holidays can be bad for your heart and how you can stay healthy:
Stress from family members
It comes as no surprise that the holidays come bearing the “gift” of stress. Whether it’s politics at the dinner table or feeling obligated to see that uncle you just can’t stand, the holidays can bring a lot of stress into your life. Add that stress to anything else that might be bothering you — work stress, school, medical problems — and you’ve got a recipe for conditions that could cause a heart attack or stroke.
What to do
Before you get together with your family for Christmas, decide what is and is not up for discussion. Decide what you will allow to simply slip over you like water off a duck’s back. For instance, if your aunt who votes differently from you is just going to make relatively harmless snide comments, you might want to plan on letting it go. Set boundaries and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. You can also meditate before the get-together or take a walk mid-way through the visit to relieve some stress.
Anyone who has spent time waiting in the security line at the airport knows that holiday travel can be stressful. Anxiety over making flight times, dealing with weather delays or a noisy baby on the plane, and missing connecting flights can cause your heart to go into overdrive. If you have peripheral artery disease, flying can be dangerous, leading to an increased chance of blood clots. Car travel can be equally stressful, and if your trip takes you far from home, it can throw off your routine enough that sleep becomes a challenge.
What to do
Whether you travel via plane or car, get up and move around whenever possible. Walking helps reduce the likelihood of blood clots. Breathe through the stress of waiting in the security line at the airport and go into the travel experience as prepared as possible. Recognize that there are some things you simply cannot control — like the weather or other people — and resolve to let go of a need to control those variables.
Drinking too much alcohol
It’s tempting to reach for another glass of wine or whiskey when your family is in town. However, too much alcohol can lead to an irregular heart rhythm, or atrial fibrillation. Doctors see this kind of heart condition around the holidays so often that it’s now known as “Holiday Heart Syndrome.” First recognized in the 1970s, this condition results in “fast, irregular heartbeat” due to consuming too much alcohol over the holidays. It increases your chances of stroke or heart attack. Other causes of Holiday Heart Syndrome include eating too much food or consuming too much caffeine and nicotine.
What to do
It seems obvious, but we’ll go ahead and say it: don’t drink too much alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends men drink no more than four drinks on any day and no more than 14 drinks per week. For women, the low-risk drinking limits are lower at no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven drinks per week. Find healthier ways to reduce your stress by exercising, drinking peppermint or chamomile tea, and getting plenty of rest.
Over-indulging in rich foods
Indulging in your favorite treats is one of the joys of the holidays. You may have been denying yourself throughout the holiday season at office work parties and your friends’ houses, but now your grandma has cooked your favorite pie just for you. The problem is, extra sugar, fat and salt in many of our favorite holiday treats can make it harder for your heart to work properly. It can be especially bad for you if you already have heart disease.
What to do
Balance is key. Use the holiday meal as a time to practice mindful eating. Take smaller bites and savor each bite. Notice how delicious it is and slowly consume your favorite treats. You can also balance out the rich foods with eating healthy during other times of the day. In other words, don’t starve yourself waiting for that big meal. Make yourself a heart-healthy omelet on Christmas morning loaded with spinach, mushrooms, onions or another of your favorite vegetables.
Not getting help when you need it
You may not want to spoil the mood by mentioning questionable chest pain to your loved ones. You may also be hesitant to visit an emergency room in an unfamiliar city. However, when your health is at stake, it’s essential to get care when you need it. According to Dr. Michael Levine at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, “As a general rule, if someone makes it to the hospital alive, their odds of survival are very high. The key,” he says, “is very good, supportive care.”
What to do
It’s sometimes easy to confuse a heart attack and heartburn. If you experience chest pain or pressure that radiates to your arms or neck, shortness of breath, sweating and/or nausea, you might be having a heart attack. When in doubt, seek care at your local emergency room.
While it’s easy to let the pressure of the holidays weigh you down, with a little preparation and moderation, you can sail through them healthfully. What’s your favorite way to celebrate a heart-healthy holiday?
— Megan Winkler