If you’re planning on partying it up this holiday season with champers, wine and beer on tap, beware of a serious complication, known as “holiday heart syndrome” (HHS), which can cause palpitations and irregular heart arrhythmias.
Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics – SA’s leading supplier of heart medication – describes HHS as a condition which typically occurs during the holidays when people who don’t suffer from heart disease experience irregular heart rhythms following heavy alcohol consumption.
“The effect of alcohol on the heart generally depends on your age, health, the volume and the pattern of your drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption over time can increase your risk of stroke, weaken the heart muscle and render it less efficient at pumping blood to vital organs. Blood pressure also increases with each standard alcoholic drink, which contains roughly 10 – 16g of alcohol depending on the liquor of your choice.
“Holiday Heart Syndrome is typically associated with the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time and can cause acute cardiovascular effects such as heartbeat irregularities, shortness of breath and chest pain. The effects are reversible if you stop drinking or greatly reduce the amount you consume, but can be alarming when you first experience it,” she says.
An association between the ingestion of acute alcohol and onset of cardiac arrhythmias has been well documented over the past few decades and was first reported in the 70s when Dr Philip Ettinger noticed an increase in cardiac rhythm disturbances in patients following heavy drinking over the holidays.
Most of the irregular heart rhythms associated with HHS are atrial in nature. Atrial fibrillation or AF (when you experience heart palpitations, fatigue and shortness of breath) is the most common, but atrial flutter (a fast heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute) and ventricular ectopy (when your heart skips a beat) are also common.
Jennings says the mechanism of HHS isn’t fully understood, but alcohol affects the conduction paths of the heart, which explains the onset of atrial fibrillation.
“When the heart develops a rhythm like atrial fibrillation, the atria stops contracting in unison, which decreases the amount of blood moving through the heart. This causes a drop in blood pressure that can result in dizziness and in response, the body increases its heart rate.
“Abstaining from alcohol for a while is usually the recommended treatment for HHS, but it’s best to see a doctor who will check for a dangerous drop in blood pressure or signs of acute heart failure. It’s better to always err on the side of caution, when it relates to the health of your heart,” she advises.
So, what constitutes sensible drinking? According to the National Department of Health (NDoH), women should limit their alcohol intake to two drinks a day and men should preferably call it quits after the third glass.
It’s equally important to keep tabs on the amount of alcohol you consume, which can vary from drink to drink. According to the Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA), the quantities of alcohol in popular liquors are as follows:
- 340ml malt beer (at a typical 5% alcohol by volume) contains 12g of alcohol
- 340ml cider (at a typical 6% alcohol by volume) contains 16g of alcohol
- 25ml tot of brandy, whisky, gin, cane or vodka (at a typical 43% alcohol by volume) contains 11g of alcohol
- 120ml glass of wine (at a typical 12% alcohol by volume) contains 11g of alcohol). Based on a Swedish study, red wine and spirits tend to produce more episodes of arrhythmia than white wine.
To help your heart survive the festive season cheer, Jennings suggests the following:
“Limit your alcohol intake, especially if you have congenital heart disease or have an increased risk of heart disease as a result of obesity, smoking, high cholesterol or hypertension. Don’t overeat during the holidays either and try to reduce your salt intake. Too much salt could cause water retention and an increase in blood pressure, putting you at greater risk of a heart attack.