During the holidays most people worry about putting on a couple of pounds, but in addition they should be concerned about what they’re doing to their hearts. Every year during the holidays, emergency rooms like those at UCSD Medical Center see patients with symptoms of palpitations and light-headedness. Further evaluation usually confirms the patient has an abnormal heart rhythm, often atrial fibrillation, says Ajit Raisinghani, M.D., Director of the UCSD Non-Invasive Cardiac Lab. This condition, called “Holiday Heart”, is a result from over-indulgence of alcohol.
“Alcohol consumption can cause significant cardiac toxicity,” says Dr. Raisinghani. “Usually the patient experiences palpitations accompanied with a sensation of light- headedness. When these patients come into the ER we learn they’ve usually spent the weekend drinking. Most often they’re college kids who are otherwise healthy.”
Fortunately the condition resolves itself within 24 hours. But if not, the doctor will admit the patient to the hospital, administer medication to slow down the heart rate and keep watch until the heart rate returns to a normal sinus rhythm. It’s a heck of a way to spend the holidays.
Raisinghani has a number of suggestions for people who want to care for their hearts, and limiting alcohol to a reasonable amount is just one of them. Here are a few other suggestions Raisinghani offers to keep the heart in good condition this holiday season:
- Exercise regularly. Besides being a great stress reducer, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three days a week can significantly reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
- Minimize salt intake. Too much sodium contributes to high blood pressure, also called “the silent killer,” a leading cause of heart failure and stroke. This is especially important for people who already have heart disease. Raisinghani said he often sees a lot of admissions during the holidays specifically because heart patients threw caution to the wind and ate a high salt meal at a party or a relative’s home.
- Although the holidays are probably not the ideal time of year to start a diet, make a concerted effort not to gain weight. And don’t let the holidays be an excuse not to diet or watch what you eat if you do need to lose weight.
- It’s not necessary to cut out fat completely. Research has found that a moderate amount of unsaturated fat, such as that found in olive oil, canola oil, avocadoes and nuts is good for the heart. Avoid saturated fats because they stimulate the production of LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol), increase blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. All animal fats, such as those in meat, poultry, and dairy products are saturated as are those used in processed and fast foods.
- Vegetable oils, such as palm, palm kernel and coconut oils, are also saturated.
- Be aware of heart attack symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, lightheadness, and nausea. Women often experience atypical symptoms such as heartburn, upset stomach, nausea, vomiting and arm discomfort. If you or anyone around you experiences these symptoms, get to a doctor right away.
- Always have aspirin handy. Its anti-clogging ability prevents blood clots and with physician approval should be taken by individuals at risk of a heart attack as well as those experiencing signs of a heart attack.
- Learn new ways to cope effectively with stress (such as exercising) often brought on by too much to do during the holidays. Tension, frustration and sadness can trigger or worsen heart irregularities.
- Schedule time for rest and relaxation. “Down time” can help reduce stress and increase overall well being.
- Nurture friendly, caring relationships. Loneliness has been shown to have negative effects on the heart.
- Take time to savor activities that make you happy and those that make you laugh. Happiness and laughter have been shown to be some of life’s best medicine.
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