The holidays are a time of festivities with family and friends, making merry and, for some, increased risk of a heart attack. We talked with interventional cardiologist Steven Marso, MD, of HCA Midwest Health Heart and Vascular Institute about potential heart attack triggers during the winter season and what you can do to keep your ticker going strong.
1. Take a chill pill
Stress overload can also make it tough to get enough sleep, which can fuel overeating. “Insomnia makes adrenaline levels go up, blood pressure goes up and we get carb cravings,” says Marso. “You just continue to make poor choices in the moment because you aren’t sleeping.”
The takeaway: Take time to relax; try meditation to calm down. Make sleep a priority. You’ll be more clear-headed for handling family issues and making spending decisions. Get enough shut-eye to prevent spikes in the stress hormone cortisol, which increases appetite.
2. Maintain your medications
If you regularly take prescription drugs to treat a chronic condition like heart disease, continue to do so during the holidays. “We’re very busy during the holidays,” says Dr. Marso. “People are doing things they shouldn’t be doing and eating things they shouldn’t be eating. They forget to take their medication; they forget to check in with their doctor. Things like that tend to lead to heart attacks.”
The takeaway: Don’t rely on your memory for taking your pills; separate them into pill containers labeled by day. Set reminders in your phone. If you’re traveling, take the entire bottle of each medication with you.
3. Take it easy on the alcohol
“If you’re drinking a fair amount, say, more than two or three drinks or anything enough to give you a hangover, you’re creating a lot of adrenaline,” says Marso. This can lead to holiday heart syndrome, or atrial fibrillation, which is characterized by a fast, irregular heartbeat. “It’s contributed to by the buildup of adrenaline that comes when people overindulge and become dehydrated, which makes their hearts start pounding,” says Marso. “The adrenaline is what leads to heart issues. The same triggers that cause you to go into atrial fibrillation can cause a heart attack as well.”
The takeaway: Avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Don’t have more than one drink per hour, and alternate drinks with water to stay hydrated. Skip sugary drinks; it’s more difficult to tell how much alcohol you’re imbibing. Stay festive by switching to seltzer water and lime or mixers— sans the alcohol.
4. Beware of cold-weather activities
If you’re tempted to join the family for a sled ride or feel compelled to shovel snow, you may want to think twice, especially if you’re not physically active throughout the year. “Winter activities can increase stress hormone levels and blood pressure,” warns Marso, adding stress on the vessel wall. “This is what causes the rupture, which causes the heart attack,” he says. Cooler temperatures can also play a role. “Even if you’re not shoveling snow and it’s not super cold, your arteries constrict a bit to keep your core warm,” Marso says. “That also increases blood pressure and shear stress [on the blood vessels].”
The takeaway: If you’re not used to lots of strenuous activity limit your time outside, dress warmly and don’t overexert yourself.
5. Don’t ignore the symptoms
Maybe you’ve just sat down for a holiday dinner or have begun exchanging gifts – and you’re not feeling quite right. Don’t worry about ruining the moment – it will only become worse if you’re having a heart attack. Marso says heart attack symptoms like chest pain, discomfort or shortness of breath require immediate medical attention. “You should never ignore symptoms when it comes to the heart,” he adds.
The takeaway: If you think you’re having a medical emergency, get to the ER. Don’t wait and don’t brush off symptoms. It’s “better safe than sorry” when it comes to your health.