Physicians have repeatedly warned of the consequences of excessive alcohol intake, citing possible effects such as liver disease, pancreatitis, and even some forms of cancer. Building research now adds yet another item to the list: heart arrhythmias.
Consumed in large quantities, alcohol may not only produce a fleeting intoxication, but also cause intermittent episodes of rhythm disturbances, leaving sufferers to experience symptoms like heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
The Origins of the Holiday Heart
Dating back to 1978, doctors conducted a study evaluating episodes of arrhythmias in 24 patients, all of whom consumed alcohol on a regular and excessive basis. The participants also enjoyed a weekend or holiday drinking binge immediately before the evaluation. The study concluded that, even in the clinical absence of heart disease, the patients suffered an acute cardiac rhythm disturbance associated with heavy ethanol intake. Thus, the name holiday heart syndrome was born.
Further observation revealed that, in the vast majority of cases, the episodes resolved spontaneously during abstinence from alcohol use.
Understanding Moderation in Terms of Risk
Depending on tolerance level, individuals can have very different ideas of what is considered modest alcohol intake. Some, especially those who drink regularly, can consume four drinks or more without displaying any visible effects of the alcohol.
However, scientists in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology maintain that more than two drinks for men and more than one drink for women daily can greatly increases a person’s risk for atrial fibrillation, the most common heart-rhythm disturbance.
Cumulative Studies Give a Unanimous Verdict
The findings in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology were summarized with consideration of data from 14 separate studies and nearly 131,000 participants . According to Kelli Miller Stacy of WebMD Health News, “Researchers only included studies in which the highest alcohol intake category was defined as two or more drinks per day for men, one or more drinks per day for women, and 1.5 or more drinks per day for both men and women.”
When combined, the studies produced some staggering statistics. Amy Norton of Reuters Health noted that heavy drinkers were approximately 51 percent more likely to suffer atrial fibrillation, or AF, than either non-drinkers or occasional drinkers. Furthermore, the risk for atrial fibrillation increased at about 8% intervals, in proportion to how many standard drinks a person consumed daily. In other words, one drink daily would give a person an 8% higher risk than a non-drinker, two drinks 16%, three drinks 24%, and so on.
Can Alcohol-Induced Arrhythmias be Avoided?
While the physiologic effect of alcohol on heart rhythm is largely unknown, experts have suggested a number of hypotheses. Among them are the increased secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine and increased sympathetic output, both of which could interrupt the normal, controlled rate of the heart and lead to tacchyarrhythmia (or a fast, irreguar heart rhythm).
Of course, those at the greatest risk of developing an irregular heart rhythm by way of alcohol intake are individuals with existing structural heart disease and/or previous incidents of atrial fibrillation or other arrhythmia. Nontheless, many patients who have presented with clinical evidence of holiday heart syndrome are otherwise healthy, thus leading experts to believe that alcohol was the sole causative factor for their condition.
Apart from being careful not to consume alcohol too frequently and/or in excessive quantities, researchers offer that complete abstinence from alcohol is the most sure-fire way to avoid encounters with arrhythmias.