Q: I’ve heard that drinking alcohol causes something called holiday heart syndrome. Can I still drink wine during the holidays?—Thelma, Meridian, Idaho
A: Though many studies have linked moderate wine consumption with improved cardiovascular health, drinking too much alcohol can have negative consequences. One of those is holiday heart syndrome, which refers to a sudden episode of atrial fibrillation (A-fib)—a type of arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat—following excessive alcohol intake. Scientists suspect alcohol-induced A-fib is caused by acetaldehyde, a product of alcohol metabolism responsible for hangover, interfering with the normal functioning of heart muscle cells. Holiday heart syndrome is primarily linked to drinking too much alcohol, though it is also associated with stress and eating salty foods. It can happen to regular drinkers and to people who don’t normally drink, and to people with no history of heart issues.
Alcohol, stress, salty foods ... sound familiar? Though alcohol-induced arrhythmia can happen at any time, it’s most common during weekends and holidays, when people are likely to overindulge in both food and alcohol in combination with emotional stress, whether from long lines at the grocery store, travel delays or conversations with extended family on Thanksgiving.
Should wine drinkers be worried about holiday heart syndrome? Dr. Hugh Calkins, director of the electrophysiology laboratory and arrhythmia service at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, told Wine Spectator that otherwise healthy, moderate wine drinkers have little to fear. Though “it is important not to overindulge,” he says that “alcohol in moderation rarely triggers A-fib.” He “certainly [does] not advise patients who have never had A-fib to abstain unless alcohol is a known trigger [for them].” Even in patients who have experienced irregular heartbeat before, Dr. Calkins doesn’t recommend avoiding alcohol entirely.
Dr. Kristen Brown, a cardiovascular disease fellow at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says studies have shown that non-drinkers and moderate drinkers tend to drink more than usual over the holidays, so it pays to be aware of how much you’re actually consuming. To avoid holiday heart syndrome, she recommends that people drink in moderation, which the CDC considers a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women, with one drink defined as 5 ounces of wine at 12 percent alcohol. Dr. Brown also advises avoiding emotional stress, which studies have shown tends to increase during the holidays, and staying hydrated.
Dr. Calkins says that anyone experiencing heart palpitations or a racing heart after drinking alcohol should contact a physician. While stopping alcohol intake is known to reverse holiday heart syndrome, A-fib and other arrhythmias can increase a person’s risk of stroke and other issues, so any suspicion of the disorder should be taken seriously.
As always, talk to your healthcare provider about incorporating alcohol into a healthy lifestyle—and a joyous holiday season.—Kenny Martin