Stress, Heart Health and the Holidays

At this time of year with several big holidays approaching, like many of my patients, you may feel overwhelmed with too much to do and are starting to feel cranky and out of sorts.  Along with all the usual responsibilities of jobs, family routines, etc, this season brings the added pressure of financial concerns from holiday spending.

In addition, friends and family that we may not have seen in a while show up in our lives again, relationship issues may become magnified, and our emotions run the gamut between joy and anger.  Add those concerns to overeating high salty and fatty foods, drinking more alcohol, sleeping less, and skipping regular exercise, all of which can accompany the holiday season and we’ve created quite a little powder keg of stress.

It’s no wonder that many heart attacks occur during the holiday season – even hospital emergency rooms have their nicknames for them:  The Hanukkah Heart Attack, The Christmas Coronary, and The New Years Nuke.   However, it doesn’t have to be this way if you learn how to control stress, decompress from holiday pressures and practice simple, natural health.  Here’s how.

What’s Stressing You?

Stress is a double-edged sword.  It stimulates you to get through your day and actively participate in your life, helps you achieve goals and gives you the energy to do so.  However, too much stress can have the opposite effect on you.  It can cause muscle tension, high blood pressure, anxiety, irritability, and contribute to lack of sleep. It can also contribute to overeating, drinking, and smoking as a means to relieve stressful pressures.  All this can have a bad effect on your heart.

When stress gets out of control, your adrenal glands pump out too much adrenaline that causes a feeling of anxiety.  You may become restless and unable to sleep, much like the feeling you get when you’ve had too much caffeine.  It can cause irregular heart rhythms as well as gastric upsets and inflammation that can set the stage for sudden, as well as chronic illness.

Excess adrenaline produces a stress hormone called cortisol which causes blood sugar and blood pressure to rise.  It also causes us to store a lot of fat around our mid section.  Chronic over-secretion of cortisol can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease, a weakened immune system, damage to arteries and the development of atherosclerosis.  These chronic conditions can put you at much higher risk for a sudden heart attack during stressful conditions.

Here are some questions I ask my patients about their stress levels:

  • Do you feel anxious, tense, angry, and sad?
  • Do you have muscle tension, headaches, jaw pain?
  • Do you have an upset stomach, skin rashes, racing heart, sweaty palms?
  • Are you having trouble sleeping?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed about impending holidays?

If you answered yes to 2 or more of these questions, you’re over your stress threshold.

How To De-Stress Your Heart

The holidays are all about our hearts – our emotional hearts are focused on dealing with friends and relatives and wanting to give our loved ones a joyful and beautiful time while having fun ourselves.  Our spiritual hearts are focused on trying to embrace the spirit of the season and extending good will, time, and often money to those less fortunate.  Our physical hearts are the part of us that feels the over-taxing of ourselves trying to do all these things at once. Here’s what I recommend to help control the effects of all the “holiday doing” on your heart:

  •  De-stress yourself.  Include at least 30 minutes of exercise everyday which helps release harmful stress agents like adrenaline and cortisol.  In addition, take at least 15 minutes just to sit and meditate quietly or go outside and take a walk through nature.
  •  Decrease caffeine.   Switch to herbal teas or ice water with lemon in it.
  •  Watch your food intake – It’s okay to sample a little bit of holiday food in small portions, but draw the line at overloading on salty foods which can drive yourblood pressure up suddenly.
  • Get enough sleep.  Many people fore-go sleep during these busy holidays, but that’s one of the worst things you can do for your health.  Even if you have to sneak off for an hour’s nap here and there – your heart will thank you for it.
  • Accept what you cannot change.  Holidays often bring together a mix of personalities and when alcohol is involved, some personalities can ignite into stressful combatants.  Old and unresolved issues may arise.  Take responsibility for what you can do to create harmony in these situations and accept that you can’t change some things or people.
  • Prioritize your schedule. List what needs to be done first, second and what can be left for another day.  Try to consolidate holiday shopping trips so you’re not constantly running back and forth to stores, and don’t wait until the last minute to shop for gifts.

Stress can lead to a whole host of diseases, particularly sudden heart attack.  Taking time during the holidays to fit some needed “me-time” in, exercising, relaxing, visiting with friends and family, laughing, can go a long way in helping to control stress levels and save your heart!


About Dr. Mark Rosenberg

Dr. Mark A. Rosenberg, MD Dr. Mark Rosenberg received his doctorate from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1988 and has been involved with drug research since 1991. With numerous certifications in several different fields of medicine, psychology, healthy aging and fitness, Dr. Rosenberg has a wide breadth of experience in both the public and private sector with particular expertise in both the mechanism of cancer treatment failure and in treating obesity. He currently is researching new compounds to treat cancer and obesity, including receiving approval status for an investigational new drug that works with chemotherapy and a patent pending for an oral appetite suppressant. He is currently President of the Institute for Healthy Aging, Program Director of the Integrative Cancer Fellowship, and Chief Medical Officer of Rose Pharmaceuticals. His work has been published in various trade and academic journals. In addition to his many medical certifications, he also personally committed to physical fitness and is a certified physical fitness trainer.
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