Holiday Heart Syndrome: Can binge drinking trigger a stroke?

Medical experts warn revelers to drink in moderation on New Year's Eve or risk Holiday Heart Syndrome.
Medical experts warn revelers to drink in moderation on New Year's Eve or risk Holiday Heart Syndrome.

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Tis’ the season for overindulgence – but you might reconsider overdoing the alcohol.

Moderate-to-heavy drinking, common during the holidays, can trigger an abnormal heart rhythm – known as atrial fibrillation – that in some instances could lead to a stroke.

This alcohol-induced form of atrial fibrillation is known as Holiday Heart Syndrome. It’s a term researchers originated in the 1970s after observing that atrial fibrillation induced by excess alcohol consumption often happens around weekends or holidays.

And for those who are susceptible to it, the condition is often triggered by binge drinking – defined by the Mayo Clinic as five drinks in two hours for men and four drinks in two hours for women.

“It absolutely can happen to someone who has a healthy heart and who has never had atrial fibrillation before,” says cardiologist Sumeet S. Chugh, associate director for Genomic Cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. “Alcohol is a drug that can affect the heart…and there’s no way to predict who is going to get atrial fibrillation from binge drinking.”

Electrical short circuit

During atrial fibrillation, an electrical short circuit happens in the heart's upper chambers, causing it to fall out of synch with the two lower chambers. Typical symptoms include palpitations, fatigue and shortness of breath.

“In the long term, it also increases the risk of stroke from blood clots that form in the heart during fibrillation,” says cardiologist Eric Buch, director of the Specialized Program for Atrial Fibrillation at UCLA’s Cardiac Arrhythmia Center.

Moderate alcohol consumption of up to two drinks daily doesn’t appear to increase the risk of atrial fibrillation. But any more, and you run a risk – and not just during the holidays.

“Consumption of over three drinks per day was associated with a 35 percent increased risk of atrial fibrillation [in] the Framingham study,” Buch says, referring to the long-term heart project by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Boston University. 

During atrial fibrillation, the abnormal heart rhythm can cause blood to pool and form clots in the heart’s upper chambers. If that happens, and the blood clot dislodges, it could travel to the brain, where it may block blood flow and cause a stroke.

Typically, Chugh says, symptoms of Holiday Heart Syndrome resolve themselves within six to eight hours with no need for medical intervention.

“But if someone is feeling uncomfortable, then they should visit a hospital to have themselves checked out,” says Chugh, of Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.

Ultimately, there’s only one sure way to avoid the condition, says Chugh.

“What I advise folks to do is to both eat in moderation and to drink in moderation,” he says. “That really is the only way to protect against Holiday Heart Syndrome.”