How the Holidays Are Bad for Your Health

Be merry, but also be safe

By Barbara Pierce


The upcoming holidays are a big part of life for most of us. We appreciate the much-needed breaks from work. We value the time we spend with family and friends. We look forward to the parties, religious and cultural events.

Or at least, that’s how the holidays should be.

In reality though, this time of the year can bring on a whole range of health issues, both mental and physical. From rising heart attacks rates to worsening depression, here’s how the holidays can affect your well-being, mentally and physically; how the holidays are bad for your health.

• Heart attack rates increase: Though you might assume all that joy and cheer of the holidays is good for your heart, the opposite is actually true. “There’s a 5% increase in heart attacks during the holidays, according to American Heart Association research,” said physician Cynthia Jones of the Mohawk Valley board of directors of the American Heart Association and of Mosaic Health Utica.

In fact, one study in Sweden found that Christmas Eve was associated with a 37% increase in heart attacks. Researchers noted that older people are especially vulnerable to heart complications.

Several reasons for increased heart attacks have been identified, Jones said. This time of year can be incredibly stressful, including family issues, increased financial pressures and the need to shop.

Also, unhealthy eating habits during the holidays contribute to the increase in heart attacks. One study suggests the stress that an unhealthy meal places on the heart may quadruple heart attack risk in the first two hours after the meal.

Unhealthy eating includes food that is high in sugar and/or saturated and trans-fats.

Eating foods high in fat will make hardening of the arteries worse and increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Another study found that average levels of total cholesterol were 15% higher in December and January than other months.

Those with chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and allergies, are particularly vulnerable.

• Overdoing alcohol during the holidays has a number of serious consequences. First, it raises blood pressure, which is one of the most important risk factors for a heart attack or a stroke.

One alcohol-related condition is so common this time of year that it’s referred to as “holiday heart syndrome.” It can even occur in people who have no history of heart disease.

“Holiday heart syndrome occurs after episodes of acute binge drinking, which cause palpations that lead to an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation,” explained Jones. “Atrial fibrillation is defined as the upper chambers of the heart ‘quivering’ instead of beating regularly. The ineffective blood flow can lead to dizziness, chest pain or shortness of breath.

“The symptoms include rapid and irregular heartbeat, fluttering or ‘thumping’ in the chest, dizziness, shortness of breath and anxiety, weakness, faintness, confusion and sweating.”

“If left untreated, it’s very serious as it can lead to damage to the muscle of the heart or a heart valve and cause death,” she added. “If it’s diagnosed early and treated, including stopping alcohol intake, it’s reversible.”

Binge drinking during the holidays is common and, over time, can lead to any number of health issues, from heart disease to brain damage. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or higher. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks or when women consume four or more drinks in a two-hour window.

Alcohol-related injuries definitely ratchet up during the holiday season.

Flu season is in full swing. The holidays are right in the middle of flu season, which peaks between December and February.

Being around crowds increases your chances of catching the flu and other winter bugs. A flu shot will reduce the risk.

• We’re not past COVID-19: Things are trending in the right direction, but we’re not past the pandemic. Experts predict that sometime in the not-so-distant future, it will become “endemic,” meaning still present but its impact is manageable.

• Seasonal depression strikes: Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that typically starting in the late fall or early winter. Symptoms include low energy, excessive time sleeping, overeating and social withdrawal.

• Clinical depression can get worse: If you have clinical depression, the high expectations, money worries and pressure to be continuously happy can all lead to depression during the holidays.

• We put off getting medical help: When we get sick over the holidays, we put off getting help. We’re just too busy or we’re in another city or state. This only makes the illnesses worse.

• Accidents increase: The last place we want to be over the holidays is the E.R. Holiday-related injuries during the week of Christmas are common, especially falls from ladders and roofs. Also common are bad weather car accidents, holiday fires and electrical shocks.