Tis the season — for heart attacks

Holiday overeating can trigger heart problems

December 23, 2014

In the whirl of holiday festivities and end-of-year parties, it’s hard not to overindulge. But as you load your plate with all your favorites, know that overeating can be hazardous to your health.

A heavy meal doesn’t just pack on pounds, it also can spark a heart attack, especially in people with heart disease, says UC Irvine Health cardiologist Dr. Shaista Malik.

Health experts have long observed that more people suffer heart attacks and heart failure in December and January, especially in the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day. In fact, a 2004 study showed that more people in the United States die of heart attacks on Dec. 25 than any other day of the year, with Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 coming in a close second and third.

Emotional stress, colder weather, changes in routines, particularly forgoing regular exercise — all play a role. But the chief seasonal trigger appears to be overeating, with studies showing that the risk of a heart attack quadruples in the two hours following a heavy meal.

“When you eat a lot of food at once, the stomach expands and the body shifts blood from the heart to the digestive system,” explains Malik, medical director of the UC Irvine Health Preventive Cardiology Program. “In people who have blockage in heart arteries, any shunting of blood away from the heart can result in angina, or chest pain.”

A distended stomach may also cause certain nervous system reflexes that in turn can start arrhythmia such as atrial fibrillation — when the heart beats faster and erratically — and can lead to a heart attack or heart failure, Malik says.

Recognizing the symptoms and getting immediate medical treatment is vital, she says, adding, “One-third of people suffering a heart attack die before getting to a hospital.”

Learn the signs and symptoms that could signal a heart attack ›

Malik says many people delay medical care during the holidays, assuming that their shortness of breath, fatigue and unusual heart burn or chest pain will go away. “If you have this constellation of symptoms, you should seek medical care — go to urgent care or to the emergency room — right away.”

Binge drinking during the holidays may also contribute to heart problems. “When we drink to excess, alcohol can be toxic to the heart, it can weaken the heart muscle and it, too, can predispose a person to arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation.”

The best way to prevent this cascade of symptoms is by eating and drinking in moderation and planning ahead, Malik says.

“Before a party, eat a high protein snack, a handful of nuts or some yogurt — that will make it easier to pass up foods you know are high in fat and salt. Try to stick with lean protein and fill up on sides of veggies. And instead of eating a full-size piece of cake or pie, share it with another person.”

Whatever you do, don’t take home lots of leftovers.

"It’s OK to indulge a little bit at a party,” she adds. “Keeping it up over the next few days is what gets us into trouble.”

– Kristina Lindgren, UC Irvine Health Marketing & Communications