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Q&A: Can overindulging this season lead to holiday heart syndrome?

Increased caloric intake, combined with overindulging in alcohol, can lead to serious health problems in otherwise healthy people.

An illustration of Atrial fibrillation.
An illustration of Atrial fibrillation.Read moreiStock

Q: Can overindulging this holiday season be that bad for me?

A: Now that the holidays are in full swing, many of us will celebrate with family and friends, and that will no doubt include food and cocktails.

We may strive to practice moderation during the rest of the year, but that can take a back seat during holiday festivities. As a result, the increased caloric intake — which brings with it increased sodium, potassium and other electrolytes — combined with overindulging in alcohol, can lead to serious health problems in otherwise healthy people.

The combination of all these factors may lead to a condition known as "holiday heart syndrome," a term coined in a 1987 study that found that 24 healthy individuals experienced atrial fibrillation (afib) after eating and drinking too much during the holiday season.

Afib is an irregular heart rate that can cause symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or heart palpitations. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention. This serious heart condition could lead to blood clots, congestive heart failure, or stroke.

Although it's not clear why holiday heart syndrome occurs in some people, the answer is likely a combination of factors: Increased sodium and alcohol intake can contribute to high blood pressure, which could lead to an enlargement of the heart. This enlargement can affect the traveling of electrical signals that regulate the beating of the heart, which could cause afib.

For most people, this condition is temporary. However, if afib continues for more than 48 hours, intervention in the form of medication or an electric shock to the heart may be needed to bring the heart back to a normal rhythm. This can be especially true for people with existing heart damage.

To ensure that both you and your loved ones enjoy a healthy holiday season, try to practice moderation during your celebrations, especially if you or a friend or relative already has a known heart condition. Limit salt intake as much as possible — many foods are already heavily salted and don't require an extra sprinkling — and also be mindful of your alcohol intake. Federal guidelines recommend that women have no more than one drink on any single day, while men should have no more than two drinks.

Erik Polan, D.O., is an internal-medicine physician at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.