Are You Drinking Your Way to ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome’?

By Arthur Agatston, MD|Everyday Health

holiday-bar1-compressedAt this festive time of year, I look forward to seasonal greetings from patients I haven’t heard from in a while. For me, it’s a sign they’re doing well. Unfortunately, I know I’ll also hear from a few folks with a less cheerful message: They call complaining of palpitations from what is known as “holiday heart syndrome.”

This term was coined back in 1978 to describe the irregular heart rhythms (or cardiac arrhythmias) that occur at holiday time, typically in healthy people without heart disease and often after several days of heavy drinking (defined in this case as three or more drinks a day for women and four or more for men). Since then, much has been written about “holiday heart.”


While the exact mechanisms behind alcohol and arrhythmias are unclear, it appears that acute alcohol ingestion can cause short circuits in the heart’s electrical rhythm, increases in levels of free fatty acids in the blood, and surges in adrenaline and other stress hormones. Alcohol may also have an effect on electrolytes, particularly sodium, which play a key role in heart rhythm.

In some people, even modest amounts of alcohol (as little as one drink) can cause holiday heart syndrome. This is often compounded by psychological stress, overeating, too much sodium, dehydration, lack of sleep, and overdoing it on caffeine and/or marijuana.

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  1. indichas@outlook.com' Chas says:

    I have first-hand experience at this. I think it is a shame that so many medical issues are shoved into a neat little catch-all phrase box. In 2001 I took a paid vacation to Key West to unwind from my stressful job and enjoy the festivities there during Halloween. I didn’t realize I already had a high cholesterol count. I was overdoing it at night on the Tequila and would have coffee the next day to recover from the night before. I was paranoid about bacteria being in the drinking water(real, or imagined), and didn’t replenish my bodily fluids as I should have. What pushed me over the edge was having a heavily peppered fish dinner at the airport and I knew my body needed fluids, but, I was unable to command the waitresses attention to bring me some water. Moments before my flight was scheduled to leave my heart started beating at a feverish pitch and irregularly. I was rushed to the Emergency ward(the paramedics at first thought the call was for an older gentleman sitting next to me and much to his chagrin, started to attend to him and I had to point out that it was me who was having heart trouble- I was 45, but, most people mistook me for my early 30’s). I spent some unscheduled few days in the hospital on Key West, before leaving the island. I still get heart palpitations occasionally when I become too fatigued. Please don’t over do the alcohol and stay hydrated- it’s not worth it. Water is your savior.

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