IMG_4935Developing a Holiday Heart has nothing to do with giving and a lot to do with over-receiving. During the Holidays, it’s easy to indulge in sweets, treats, sodas, food, and festive libations (alcohol). According to a study published in the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), the winter holiday season is considered a risk factor for cardiac and non-cardiac death. [1] The reasons for this are complex. Stress, combined with increases in sugar and alcohol, certainly contributes to seasonal mortality.

What causes holiday stress? There are a number of factors. During the holiday period, more money is spent and this can lead to financial worries. Ebenezer Scrooge from the Muppet’s Christmas calls the Holiday Season, “Harvest time for the money lenders.” A demand for productivity, end-of the-month/year deadlines, and layoffs increase work-place stress. Fast Company reports “Psychologically, people struggle more with not knowing and wondering if it’s going to be them.” [2] Additionally, social stress intensifies as companies, families, and friends plan holiday parties that increase obligations.

For many people, anxiety and depression are regular side effects of the season. Memories of holidays past may cause sadness as traditions change and loss through aging and death become a reality. Unrealistic expectations coupled with an over commitment of time unbalances the mind and body. And a lack of sunshine/outdoor recreation has long been implicated in the wintertime blues. Striving for holiday perfection can easily lead to burn out.

To assuage the stress of the holidays, many people turn to comfort foods and treats. Sugar has lots of forms from which to choose. Some of these are familiar like the sugar (white, brown, yellow) found in deserts such as ice-cream, cookies, chocolate, and candies. Honey, syrups, and molasses are sugars too, as are wine, liquor and beer. Carbohydrates like pasta, rice, potatoes, and bread are another form of sugar. Sugar acts in the body like a poison. Harvard’s Dr. Robert Lustig reveals, “Sugar creates an appetite for itself by a determinable hormonal mechanism, a cycle that you could no more break with willpower than you could stop feeling thirsty through sheer strength of character. Cortisol, the hormone related to stress, is partly to blame.” [3]

In 1978, “Holiday heart syndrome” (HHS) was described for the first time, as an acute cardiac rhythm disturbance that was observed on weekends and over the holidays. Alcohol can be a precipitating factor for cardiac dysrhythmias of all types and the mechanisms behind this remain unresolved. [4] However, it is not unreasonable to suspect that alcohol alone may not be the culprit. An influx of toxic sugars may also contribute to HHS. The American Heart Association notes, “Factors like cold weather, stress and dietary indiscretion can contribute to a chain of events leading to more stress on the heart.”[5]

To celebrate the Holidays, and not just survive them, we must learn to nurture our hearts with healthy gifts of rest, nourishment, exercise, meditation, and/or prayer. It is vital to release expectations of how the holidays should unfold, and to ask for help whenever possible. Say “no” to excessive demands on time and energy. When we consciously choose tea over an alcoholic toast, whole over processed foods, a natural treat over sugary sweets, we begin to provide a healthy foundation that will carry over into the New Year. In caring for ourselves, we are better prepared for a giving (and forgiving) heart this Holiday Season.

[1] American Heart Association, Avoiding the deadly holiday heart attack, 2016, https://newsroom.heart.org/news/avoiding-the-deadly-holiday-heart-attack

[2] Fast Company, Fired For The Holidays: Is It Acceptable For Businesses To Downsize In December? By Rachel Gillett, 2014, https://www.fastcompany.com/3040061/fired-for-the-holidays-is-it-acceptable-for-businesses-to-downsize-in-december

[3] The Guardian, Interview with Robert Lustig: the man who believes sugar is poisonby Zoe Williams, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/aug/24/robert-lustig-sugar-poison

[4] National Institutes of Health, Holiday Heart Syndrome Revisited after 34 Years by David Tonelo, Rui Providência, and Lino Gonçalves, 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3998158/

[5] American Heart Association, Avoiding the deadly holiday heart attack, 2016, https://newsroom.heart.org/news/avoiding-the-deadly-holiday-heart-attack

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