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Unfortunately, it's also a time when many people are vulnerable to heart attacks. Doctors have long known that December and January are peak months for heart trouble for many reasons—some of them avoidable.
Here are a few tips for steering clear of ticker trouble this year:
You hear a lot about how alcohol in moderation is good for your heart. What you may not know is that too much is clearly bad.
Knocking back too many drinks can raise blood pressure in the long term and trigger atrial fibrillation—an irregular heartbeat that can cause weakness, dizziness, and chest pain—in the short term.
“There is typically an increase in alcohol consumption around the holidays, which can lead to various heart-related complications,” said Patrick Shanovich, M.D., at Dignity Health – California Hospital Medical Center’s Emergency Department. “In the short term, it may lead to fast rhythms that often place added strain on the heart. In the long term, not only can chronic heavy alcohol consumption lead to higher blood pressure, but it can also change the structure and function of the heart, with the potential for heart failure.”
Eating a big meal—particularly a high-fat one—could potentially trigger a heart attack. The two-hour period after a heavy meal is risky; diverting blood from the heart to aid digestion may also spur angina or heart-related chest pain.
“The temptation to overeat is everywhere and more so during the holiday season,” says Dawn Montecillo, RD, director of Nutritional Services at Dignity Health – California Hospital Medical Center. “Eating more food than what your body needs over and over again will inevitably lead to weight gain. And if the food choices are high in calories, sodium, cholesterol, as well as saturated and trans fat, you are increasing your cardiovascular risk factors. During this holiday season and every day, consider a balanced diet with all food groups to ensure a variety of nutrients from your meals, monitor portion control, and allow yourself time to digest as well as acknowledge when your body is satiated.”
Note: On average, most Thanksgiving and holiday meals can contain anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 calories at one sitting which include side dishes, drinks, and dessert. Don’t wait for your new year’s resolution to see your doctor for a physical, if you exhibit signs of labored breathing or chronic indigestion, abnormal shooting pains in the arms or legs.
Holiday sweets, alcohol, and big meals can trigger acid reflux and, hence, chest pain. So it's no surprise that someone in the early stages of a holiday heart attack might assume they're having heartburn instead. When in doubt, get it checked out promptly.
“Heartburn, also known as acid reflux or indigestion, has nothing to do with the heart but rather your esophagus,” adds Montecillo. “Since the esophagus and heart are close in proximity, heart attacks may be closely mistaken as heartburn. When consuming meals, consider the timing of your meals and the amount and type of food consumed which will make a difference in how you feel.”
It’s often quiet on Christmas day in emergency rooms—and not because people are less likely to need urgent care. Instead, people wait, hoping the pain will go away. Visits spike in the days after Christmas.
According to Dr. Shanovich, “One problem we run into in the Emergency Department is a delay in patients seeking care. Our hearts don’t typically take the holidays off even if we do. If you have chest pain, shortness of breath, or other symptoms concerning to you or your family, please don’t put them off till tomorrow. The longer you wait, the more damage can be done to the heart muscle.”
When experiencing these symptoms, you must go to the nearest Emergency Department for immediate consultation and treatment.
California Hospital Medical Center has been providing high quality, essential care to downtown and its neighboring communities since 1887. California Hospital Medical Center is known for its wide range of specialties, from orthopedics and surgery to maternity and neonatal intensive care. It is also the area's only Level II Trauma Center. California Hospital Medical Center is a member of Dignity Health.