The condition was first reported in the early 1970s, though it likely dates back to the invention of the wine goblet, approximately 12,000 years ago.
Typically, the setting is the Holiday Season. The victim may well have consumed a number of drinks rather quickly, and possibly also eaten numerous microwavable appetizers and a large quantity of pre-packaged holiday ham. This individual may be stressed out from work. They may be anxious spending time with family. They may be completely healthy, without any history of heart disease or high blood pressure. Then suddenly, they experience a minor arrhythmia, a strange fluttering of the heart. No, it’s not love—it’s Holiday Heart.
“Your heart is basically beating very erratically, chaotically, and extremely fast,” Dr. Curtis Rimmerman, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told ABC News several years ago, “like having a Mexican jumping bean inside your chest.”
Holiday Heart Syndrome, or HHS, was first recognized when a medical researcher named Philip Ettinger noticed an association between intoxicated patients and cardiac arrhythmias. “The term was officially introduced in 1978 for describing…an acute cardiac rhythm disturbance in apparently healthy people after an episode of heavy drinking, i.e., ‘binge drinking,’” noted a 2013 research paper in the Brazilian research journal, Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia.
“These occurrences,” continued the paper, “had the particularity of being more frequent after weekends or holidays like Christmas or New Year’s Eve, which are known to be associated with increased alcohol ingestion, hence the name.”
Holiday Heart is something most general practitioners appear to be well-aware of.
“At this festive time of year, I look forward to seasonal greetings from patients I haven’t heard from in a while,” says Dr. Arthur Agatston, in a post on everydayhealth.com. Agatston is an American cardiologist and celebrity doctor best known for his development of the South Beach Diet. “In some people,” he says, “even modest amounts of alcohol (as little as one drink) can cause holiday heart syndrome.”
“We’re often surrounded by lots of food during this time,” Dr. Leslie Cho, also of the Cleveland Clinic, noted in a 2015 blogpost. “Whether you’re in the office or whether you’re with your family, you tend to eat foods that are very different than your normal diet.” She recommends avoiding foods heavy in creams, sugars, and salts.
“Eating a large amount of food in one sitting causes the stomach to expand,” notes a Fox news story on Holiday Heart. “This distention of the stomach can result in a stretching reflex that stimulates the nervous system and initiates fast heart rhythms.”
Aside from the psychological stress of the holidays and overeating salty foods, Dr. Agatston says that other things which can contribute to the condition include dehydration, lack of sleep and “overdoing it on caffeine and/or marijuana.”
Another suggestion, take it easy on the Irish coffee. Dr. Rimmerman, of the Cleveland Clinic said that mixing alcohol and caffeine together should be avoided, including “the popular practice of mixing alcohol with energy drinks.” That, he said, is a “very bad combination.”
But what exactly is going on in your heart when you experience Holiday Heart Syndrome?
“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,” explains Agatston. “Alcohol may also have an effect on electrolytes, particularly sodium, which play a key role in heart rhythm.”
“Generally,” says Agatston, “the symptoms last just a few seconds and, in most people, go away completely within 24 hours as the alcohol leaves the body.”
“It is important to note that patients with HHS are apparently healthy,” notes the Brazilian research paper, “with no personal or family history of palpitations or other suggestive symptoms of structural cardiac anomalies or any clinical evidence of heart disease.”
And one can never be too sure with matters of the heart. There is always the chance that your Holiday Heart is the coming of a full-on heart attack. If Holiday Heart symptoms last for more than a day or two, warn doctors, it can be a sign of a much more severe condition, such as atrial fibrillation, or Afib, which can lead to a stroke, or sudden cardiac death. Afib is no laughing matter. WebMD has devoted an entire post to what they call the “Merry Christmas coronary” or “Happy Hanukkah heart attack.”
And as Digital Dying is well-aware, the Holidays are a strange time for dying in general. In 2010 Digital Dying reported on research that examined more than 57 million U.S. death certificates and revealed that the chance of dying during the holidays increased from between three to nine percent. In 2014, Digital Dying reported on “a bizarre spate of Christmas shopping deaths.” One was the death of 38-year-old Tao Hsiao. In December 2013, after shopping with his girlfriend for shoes and clothes for more than five hours at a mall in Xuzhou, China, Hsiao leapt from a balcony. “He told [his girlfriend] she already had enough shoes,” recalled one eyewitness. “More shoes than she could wear in a lifetime and it was pointless buying any more.”
The two weeks starting with Christmas have on average about 40,000 more natural deaths than the overall winter average. After all, ‘tis the season!
“Enjoy the holidays,” said Dr. Marc Gillinov, a heart surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and author of the book, Heart 411: The Only Guide To Heart Health You’ll Ever Need, “but make sure you enjoy them in moderation—think of your heart.”