Protect Your Heart This Holiday Season

The end-of-the-year holiday season that traditionally begins with Thanksgiving and ends with a celebration on New Year's Eve is meant to be a time of joy and gratitude shared with family and friends. And for most people, that's exactly what it is. For, others, however, it's a perilous time that ends up with them either in the hospital or dead.

That's because the time of the year that begins in late November and runs through January is know by many cardiologists as the season of holiday heart attacks. And with good reason.

According to a study published in Circulation, a leading medical journal that covers cardiovascular health, during the holiday season approximately 33 more people die from heart attack and other types of heart disease compared to the number of heart-related deaths that occur annually between early June and late September. These findings were the result of a 12-year study that examined the death records of over 220,000 people who died during that time period. The study also found that hospital admissions for nonfatal cases of heart disease also rise during the holiday season.

There are a number of related reasons to account for this shocking increase of holiday deaths and hospital admissions due to heart disease. The primary reasons include increased alcohol consumption, eating larger meals, stress, winter flu, and cold weather. Let's take a look at each of these factors so that you can learn what to do about them.

Increased alcohol consumption
Since people traditionally socialize more during the holidays, it's not surprising that they also tend to drink more alcoholic beverages during this time too. Family gatherings, get-togethers with friends, and office parties during the holiday season all tend to see a freer flow of alcohol compared to other times of the year. And while research indicates that drinking beer or wine in moderation may actually be good for your heart, this is not true of "harder" alcoholic beverages, or even of champagne, a standard drink during New Year's Eve celebrations. And excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages of any kind is definitely not healthy.

In addition to the many other health risks excessive alcohol poses, it can cause potentially fatal changes in your heart's normal rhythm (a condition known as arterial fibrillation), and can also depress heart function and damage the chambers (atria) of the heart itself. People with pre-existing heart conditions have a particularly high risk of suffering a holiday heart attack if they don't limit their alcohol consumption. Therefore, despite the temptation to unwind with family, friends, or co-workers during the holidays by drinking to excess, discipline yourself and limit your alcohol consumption.

According to the American Heart Association, men should have no more than two glasses of wine or beer each day, while women should limit themselves to one drink daily. That's especially healthy advice during the holidays. And, in addition, be sure not to drink and drive.

Eating Larger Meals
Beginning with the Thanksgiving meal, food consumption can increase dramatically for many of us during the holidays. Not only to holiday meals tend to be much larger than normal, the holiday season is also a time when we tend to eat more often. In addition, the holidays are also a time when plentiful supplies of sweet and fatty foods are to be found. Because of these reasons, many people gain weight during the holiday season, and then have trouble shedding it during the remaining winter months, due to the fact that they tend to be less active than during other times of the year.

The reasons for avoiding eating larger than normal meals and unhealthy foods should be obvious to you. Even so, here are some things you may not know about unhealthy eating in relation to your heart.

Whenever you eat a large meal, your brain directs blood to your gastrointestinal tract in order to help your body deal with and digest all the food you've consumed. If you suffer from atherosclerosis (arterial blockages that restrict blood flow to the heart), this diversion of blood to your gut can deprive your heart of the oxygen-rich blood it needs, leading to a range of potential heart problems ranging from chest pain (angina) to outright heart attack.

In addition, eating sweet and high fat foods, both of which make for standard holiday fare in many homes, can cause an inflammatory response in your body, as well as a spike in your body's insulin levels. Both of these reactions can result in heart disease. Sweet and fatty foods can also damage the inner lining of your body's blood vessels (known as the endothelium) and/or cause them to constrict. This can result in coronary spasms and further restrict the amount of blood that is available for your heart.

Therefore, to protect your heart during the holidays, you need to stick with eating normal sized, healthy meals during the holidays, and avoid sweets and high-fat foods. In addition, you should also limit your consumption of salt, as excessive salt intake can cause high blood pressure and, in some cases, heart failure or a dangerous buildup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema).

Stress
Despite the feelings of increased joy and happiness the holidays are meant to create, for many people the holiday season is a time of greatly increased stress due to various factors such as unresolved family and/or other relationship issues, holiday shopping in crowded malls and stores, increased travel and traffic problems, and, especially in today's economic times, anxieties about finances. The lack of physical activity that is also common during the holidays can also contribute to and exacerbate stress.

Chronic stress is perhaps the most common risk factors for most of the chronic health conditions faced by our nation today, and has for decades been linked to an increase in heart attacks and other types of heart disease. Therefore, during the holidays, it is especially important that you pay attention to your stress levels and take time each day to deal with whatever stress you may be feeling.

One of the simplest and most effective "stress-busters" is to simply breathe deeply in a relaxed manner for few minutes while sitting in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. By doing this a few times each day you will start to train your body to enter into what is known as "the relaxation response," a state of physical and mental calm that is very similar to what happens when people meditate. You can also enjoy the benefits of deep breathing at any time, even when you are stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the mall. The key is to breathe in and out through your belly rather than your chest.

In addition to this simple technique, you can also minimize your stress levels during the holidays by making time for yourself, not overextending yourself with unnecessary social gatherings, and avoiding unpleasant conflicts. Staying physically active during the holidays can also do a lot to keep your stress at bay. But perhaps the most important thing you can do to alleviate stress during the holidays (as well as during any other time of the year) is to focus on what the holidays were designed for—feeling grateful. Research has shown that regularly cultivating feelings of gratitude is not only very effective for banishing stress, but also healthy for you in many other ways, including boosting your immune system. So, rather than focusing on whatever causes you stress during the holidays, make a point to look for and appreciate all that you have to be grateful for in your life. By doing so, not only will you experience less stress, you'll feel great too.

Winter flu
As you probably know, peak flu season runs from December through March, and various scientific studies have shown that the viruses that cause the flu increases inflammation levels in the body. This isn't surprising since inflammation is one of the ways your body fights off invading germs, including viruses. However, if a virus or other harmful microorganism is able to gain a foothold in your body, inflammation can become chronic and potential cause other problems, including an increased risk of blood clots and destabilization of plaque in the arteries, both of which can lead to heart attack.

One way to avoid the risk of flu is to get an annual flu shot. However, according to a study published two years ago in the prestigious British Medical Journal, the effectiveness of annual flu shots may be exaggerated. (See
Influenza vaccination
policy versus evidence
. Therefore, it's best if you also take other precautions, such as washing your hands regularly to prevent transmission of cold and flu bugs, eating healthily, exercising, and taking care to provide your body with all of the essential nutrients it needs (a task you can easily accomplish by supplementing with a quality multivitamin/mineral product). Some researchers also advise supplementing with vitamin D, which has been shown to boost immunity, and which is typically lacking in people, especially during winter months due to lack of sunshine and not regularly being outdoors. You can discuss such options with your Health Expert.

Cold weather
For many people around the country, cold weather can also increase the risk of heart disease. However, in most cases, it's not the cold weather itself that is the main risk factor. (In fact, the Circulation study I mentioned above only examined the death records of deceased people in greater Los Angeles.) Although cold weather can adversely affect people with pre-existing heart conditions, the main weather-related culprit is actually activity associated with it, such as snow shoveling, especially for people whose lifestyles are otherwise sedentary. Shoveling snow, particularly after a heavy snowfall, if you are not accustomed to physical activity, can significantly strain your heart. Therefore, make it a point not to overdo things. Pace yourself and take breaks and, if you need help clearing your driveway and sidewalk, don't be afraid to ask for it.

In addition to paying attention to the above holiday risk factors for heart disease, you should also pay attention to any uncomfortable sensations you may experience in your body, as they can be warning signs of a heart attack. The most common heart attack symptoms are pain or pressure in the chest area, pain in the abdomen, difficulty breathing and/or shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue or lack of energy, dizziness, and pain in your left arm or shoulder, or in your back or jaw. Unexplained nausea or vomiting can also be a warning sign. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

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