It’s certainly the lump of coal among all the presents! 

Research shows that the death rate from heart attack and stroke tends to spike around the holiday season. The numbers include both fatal and non-fatal heart attacks, as well as a less serious, alcohol-induced condition called “holiday heart syndrome” that causes the heart to beat irregularly.

Holidays aren’t so joyful for the heart

One study from the University of California-San Diego shows cardiac deaths rise nearly 5% on Dec 25, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1. That’s an estimated 2,000 extra deaths annually. What’s even more surprising about the research is the role of food, particularly overeating and heavy meals during the holidays. It is the top trigger, more dangerous than emotional stress, colder weather, changes in routines and skipping out on regular exercise. 

The science of how overeating affects your heart

You have to consider the science. When you eat a lot of food at once, your stomach expands with your digestive system requiring more blood. If you have coronary heart disease or are at risk for it, overeating (a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner can top 5,000 calories) can have serious consequences. Triglycerides—a type of fat in the blood after a large meal—can cause coronary artery inflammation, commonly a prelude to a heart attack. Large amounts of food and alcohol can also cause the release of adrenaline-like substances that can cause a fatal abnormal heart rhythm.

Binge drinking during the holidays is also dangerous for the heart. When you drink in excess, alcohol can weaken the heart muscle and put you at greater risk for arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation.

Heart attack symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and getting immediate medical treatment is vital. One-third of people suffering a heart attack die before getting to the hospital. Here are the top signs of a heart attack, though these may vary between men and women and patient by patient. 

• Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back

• Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain

• Shortness of breath

• Cold sweat

• Fatigue

• Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness

A healthier (heart) holiday 

Planning is your best weapon against overeating during the holidays. Here are a few simple tips to help you and most of all, your heart.

• SNACK. Don’t go to a holiday party or sit down for a holiday meal famished. Eat a high-protein snack beforehand. Try peanuts or a couple slices of cheese to take the edge of your hunger.

• MAKE CAREFUL CHOICES. Watch what you eat. Did you know traditional eggnog is high in cholesterol, fat (20 grams) and calories (400). It’s like eating two glazed doughnuts. Even green bean salad can be a top offender! Factor in the fried onion topping, butter, and cream, and you’ve got a dish with more than 750 calories per batch and more than 4,000 milligrams of sodium. That’s twice the daily limit recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

• EXERCISE. Keep up with your regular exercise routines and consider increasing your schedule to burn off some of the extra holiday calories. Another walk around the block can go a long way in terms of protecting your heart during the holidays

Certainly we all love the delicious dishes and treats that come with holiday celebrations. The key is to enjoy in moderation, don’t over-indulge. Your heart will certainly be thankful that you did.


Kurt Belk is ER physician and medical director of The Urgency Room in Vadnais Heights

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