Holiday indulgences pose challenges to heart health

November 23, 2021

Holiday indulgences pose challenges to heart health

Between now and New Year’s Day, families and friends will reconnect and celebrate with uncommonly abundant food and drink as well as activities and stress well beyond the norm. While our intent is to make lasting memories, a trip to the Emergency Room shouldn’t be one of them.

“We know there are a lot of interesting seasonal variations,” said Dr. Eugene Yang, co-director of the UW Medicine Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Program. “A lot of it is related to the food. The foods are richer and heavier in the winter. Probably, people are less active. And so that correlates with why blood pressures tend to be higher in the winter months.”

Yang addressed several health considerations of the holiday season, and how to approach them in ways that keep your heart happy.

Eating

Holiday feasts hold a special place in the traditions of many families. Yang said you can enjoy favorite foods without overindulging by making smart decisions before a big dinner: Have a healthy snack beforehand, drink your daily recommendation of water, and balance out big meals by eating lighter on days without gatherings.

Alcohol

Consuming alcohol plays a common role in festive celebrations, and increased drinking during this season has given rise to holiday heart syndrome – a common cause of cardiac heart disease.

“Certain people might be more predisposed to it, but you can have no history of any heart-related conditions and drink excessively or consume too much alcohol during the holidays, and you could create a situation where you develop atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, even in the absence of any pre-existing risk factors,” said Yang.

Avoiding binge drinking is the best defense against the syndrome, which is often identified by a rapid or irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation.

Physical Activity

Before jumping into aerobic activities like touch football, cross-country skiing or Ultimate Frisbee, consider what your heart should realistically be able to handle.

“I think you need to be mindful about what your fitness level is and what you have done, before deciding that you're going to be a weekend warrior,” he said.  A long walk can be a less-strenuous and still healthy activity for holiday get-togethers.

Sleep

Holiday travel and celebrations can also knock us out of our sleep routines. Yang said it’s important to create balance for yourself when it comes to resting during gatherings. Poor sleep habits can harbor cardiovascular risks, including diabetes and obesity.

“These are the holidays, so let's be realistic,” said Yang. “One night you may stay up later, but then try to take more sleep and get (back to) more normal sleep habits in between those events.”

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