How to keep your heart healthy during the holidays

Health

Mind-body health has been a well-described phenomenon for centuries in traditions of Eastern medicine.  Western medicine has in the last two decades started to embrace, study, investigate, and teach principles of mind-body health. 

The connection between mind and body is irrefutable.  The nature of this relationship can exert a profoundly positive influence on physical and emotional well-being and quality of life.  Our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and resultant emotional states can trigger chain reactions that impact blood chemistry and blood pressure, for example.

These chain reactions affect activity of every cell and organ system in the body.  Affected organ systems include cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal and digestive tract.  Serotonin, a common neurotransmitter, is critical in mood regulation, social behavior, sleep and memory.  A little-known fact about serotonin is that ninety percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the digestive tract.  A living example of mind-body connection.

Another noteworthy example but far more serious of the mind-body health connection is the condition known as Holiday Heart.  Holiday Heart Syndrome, or HHS, is a term coined in 1978 by Philip Ettinger that refers to a potentially life-threatening condition when the heart beats irregularly as a result  of excessive alcohol consumption around holidays and other special events.

Symptoms: Chest pains, heart racing, heart palpitation, light headedness and shortness of breath.

Who:  This condition involves a person who may otherwise have a healthy heart but binge drinks around the holidays.  Other contributing factors include heavy eating, smoking, extra salt intake, dehydration, stress and cold weather.  Depression can also contribute to having an unhealthy heart.

Symptoms described above can result in visits to the emergency room.  The clinical course usually requires symptomatic treatment such as IV fluids, rest, etc. and will resolve itself in 24 hours.  However, in some instances the “Holiday Heart” can lead to congestive heart failure and stroke.  Research studies viewed December 25, December 26 and January 1, as having high occurrences of fatal heart attacks.

Tips:

•Limit alcohol intake

•Hydrate with water if drinking alcohol

•Minimize heavy eating while drinking

•Stop smoking

•Avoid salt

•Address feelings of sadness and stress

The contributors to heavy alcohol consumption are multifactorial.  One leading factor is social isolation and loneliness.  Currently, the United States is in an epidemic of loneliness.  Ironically, we are in the midst of the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.

Loneliness has a profound effect on well-being.  It reduces the life span and can be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.  Loneliness elevates the risk for heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.

This holiday season please be mindful to avoid social isolation.  Identify, create and sustain meaningful social connectivity.  Social connectedness does not always mean “finding friends” but establishing ties to a church, non-profit, school or distressed neighbor.

The key is to worry less about yourself and focus that energy on others who can benefit from your compassion.  Practicing gratefulness leads to happiness.  Happiness, in turn leads to a healthier more fulfilling life.

Dr. Rahul N. Mehra is CEO and chief medical officer for the National Center for Performance Health. Mehra is a Board-Certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with over twenty years of experience in patient care. He has also served as a medical director for several publicly-held managed care companies over the course of his career.

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