Though it sounds like a warm and fuzzy Hallmark Christmas movie or an adorable craft you’d see on Pinterest, the term holiday heart actually refers to a relatively common health problem. I should know because it happened to me. A few years ago, after a couple of pre-dinner glasses of wine, I noticed my heart was pounding. I lay down, assuming that if I got some rest, it would have to slow down. But to my bewilderment, it didn’t. For at least an hour, it continued to thump wildly in my chest.
Panicked, I took to the internet to self-diagnose (cause I’m a millennial and that’s what we do, obvs). Sure enough, there was a name for what I was experiencing: holiday heart syndrome.
By definition, holiday heart syndrome is an “acute cardiac rhythm and/or conduction disturbance” associated with alcohol consumption. In other words, your heart goes wonky when you drink too much—even if you’re a healthy person who doesn’t experience heart problems otherwise. Your heart may pound or beat irregularly in a misfiring pattern known as atrial fibrillation, or you may even feel lightheaded, faint, or short of breath. (Symptoms are usually quite noticeable, so you’ll know if you’re experiencing it.)
Why “Holiday” Heart?
While this can happen any time we drink a bit too much, the condition earns its “holiday” moniker for good reason. Americans’ alcohol consumption spikes dramatically as we enter the holiday season. As parties and festivities fill our calendars, we’re packing them with booze: A quarter of annual distilled spirit sales occur between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and one study found that average alcohol consumption during the last two weeks of December was 70 percent higher than the rest of the year.
According to Alcohol.org, 27.3 percent of men and 16.7 percent of women report drinking enough on New Year’s Eve to have difficulty remembering the celebration. And for some, the reasons behind the excess are not so festive. The holidays see a major surge in mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which may often lead to increased drinking as a coping mechanism.
Who Does It Affect?
Just like this syndrome isn’t limited to the holidays, it’s also not confined to any particular population of people, healthy or unhealthy—and it may not take much of a binge to make you experience it. I had my “attack” after just two drinks. Am I simply extra susceptible? For reasons unknown, it turns out some people are. For the very sensitive, just one drink can precipitate heart arrhythmias. Stress and dehydration—two additional hallmarks of the holidays—also appear to play a role in increased risk. Most people, however, only experience an episode of holiday heart syndrome after binge-drinking.
Is There a Way to Avoid It?
It’s true that abstaining from alcohol is the only foolproof way to prevent holiday heart syndrome, but that may not mean we’re doomed to a dry December. Nieca Goldberg, M.D., cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, encourages moderation instead of excess.
“Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean you should increase your alcohol intake,” she says. (For reference, “moderate” consumption is widely defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two per day for men.) For those who may be sensitive, keep drinking mindfully with frequent check-ins as to how you’re feeling.
What to Do When Holiday Heart Hits
If a telltale thumping heart or an erratic pulse flares up after a few cups of eggnog, you probably don’t need to freak out. Simply stop drinking. Most cases of holiday heart syndrome resolve within a few hours or up to a day. But more serious symptoms require medical attention. Any time you experience shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or feeling faint (or actually fainting) after alcohol consumption, go to the hospital right away, instructs Goldberg (and common sense).
Any Long-Term Effects to Worry About?
If you’re like me (which is to say a perpetual hypochondriac), you may wonder whether an episode of holiday heart syndrome has sinister implications for your long-term heart health. Does it make you more likely to have a heart attack later in life, for example? While there appears to be no indication that holiday heart means your ticker is headed for permanent trouble, chronic alcohol use does come with plenty of health risks, both for your heart and your general health.
“Heavy drinking can lead to a condition known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy, an irreversible weakening of the heart muscle that can result in heart failure,” Goldberg warns. And long-term alcohol use increases the risk of numerous health problems we’d all like to avoid, from liver disease to cancer to dementia.
Thankfully, during the holidays, there are plenty of other ways to celebrate besides binge-drinking. Decorate a gingerbread house, bust out your best ugly sweater and go caroling, or cozy up in front of a fire. Or, sure, have a drink here or there—just be mindful and keep it moderate.