Ask The Doctor

Avoiding Christmas Coronaries And Holiday Heart Syndrome

Dear Dr. Garner,

I would like your opinion on the following matter: My brother who is 63 years old is constantly under stress. This is from his job and his family. I am worried about him.

He is a smoker, has gained weight and has let himself run down. I know that the holidays are particularly stressful for him. Do you believe that is possible that all the stress can cause him to have a heart attack?

Our father died when he was 65 of a heart attack, and understandably, I am very concerned.

Concerned Sister

In Canarsie


Dear Concerned,

I don’t want to be a Scrooge, but the holiday time can be a real killer.

There is a definite relationship between holiday stress and heart attacks. On top of that, the fact that your brother has gained weight, does not regularly work out and smokes is a good recipe for a heart attack. With Christmas almost upon us, it is particularly important to control the holiday stress to which we are exposed.

There is actually a condition known as a Christmas Coronary. This is a heart attack that is caused by stress and other factors during the Christmas season.

Common Heart Attack Days

A recent article published in a prestigious heart journal found that the No. 1 day of the year for heart attacks in the U.S. is Dec. 25, with Dec. 26 being the second most common and Jan. 1 the third most common day. It is not clearly understood why people develop heart problems at Christmas; however, it is most likely related to a combination of the stress, alcohol, dehydration and increased physical activity that one experiences this time of year.

Another heart condition which occurs due to stress plus alcohol intake is Holiday Heart Syndrome.

The symptoms include irregular and fast heart rate, palpitations, shortness of breath and chest discomfort. If one experiences chest pain or discomfort associated with an irregular heartbeat, then it is critical to call an ambulance or get to an emergency room as soon as possible. Sometimes the irregular heartbeat can be a warning, and other times it can be the real thing.

If you do get the irregular heartbeat, it is a call to change your lifestyle. This includes exercise, quitting smoking, proper diet (fruit and vegetables every day) and alcohol in moderation (for men, one to two drinks a day, and for women, one drink per day).

Those who binge drink are most likely to develop Holiday Heart Syndrome. Electrolytes in the body are out of whack due to dehydration from the alcoholic drinks. The heart is irritable due to alcohol, cold weather, stress and unusually high physical activity.

In addition, I would like to remind our readers that heart disease is not unique to men. Women have now caught up to the fatalities and number of heart attacks.

Ways to Lower Risks

There are things that one can do to lower the risk of heart problems during Christmas:

1. Drink in moderation.

2. Control the amount of salt and sugar in your holiday meals.

3. Cold weather makes the heart work harder and more prone to a heart attack and irregular heart beat. Perform work in moderation. There are a lot of holiday chores and tasks; however, it is important to take time out to rest and not overdo it.

4. Make sure to take all your medications. The time around Christmas is one of the major periods in which people are not compliant with their prescriptions.

5. Take time out to pamper yourself with a massage or warm bath. Try meditation. This is also useful in relaxing.

6. Avoid family stress if possible. Keep the topic of conversation away from controversial family matters and concentrate on blessings for which the family is grateful. Go around the table and ask what each person is thankful for this year.

7. Flu shots are another important mechanism to reduce heart disease. Those over the age of 50 are more susceptible to heart attacks and irregular heart rhythm when they become severely ill with the flu.

Listen to Your Body

The key to avoiding the Christmas Coronary and Holiday Heart is to practice moderation in your holiday celebrations and throughout the year. The holiday season is supposed to be a time to relax and enjoy celebrations with family and friends. It is important to listen to your body. If you think that your heartbeat is irregular or you are having chest pain, then get to the hospital right away.

Many deaths are caused by people postponing a visit to the emergency room because they do not want to ruin the party. Having a glass of alcohol is usually not a problem – having three or more glasses is.

In summary, while heart attacks and irregular heartbeats increase during the Christmas season, moderation and common sense can reduce your risk.

I want to wish you and your family a happy and healthful Christmas and hope that this article serves to prevent heart problems. Take care of yourself![hr] Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

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