(For Spectrum Health Beat)

You’ve heard the song: It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?

But what happens when you eat and drink more than normal? You’re busier than usual, getting less sleep, feeling stressed and drinking more caffeine.

That combination of holiday cheer can lead to something much less wonderful: holiday heart syndrome. Anything but merry and bright, this condition causes the feeling of a racing or irregularly beating heart in otherwise healthy people.

“We all think of too much alcohol as toxic to the liver, but it can also be directly toxic to the heart muscle,” said Darryl Elmouchi, MD, a Spectrum Health electrophysiologist. “Fortunately, the holiday heart arrhythmia usually resolves itself after the alcohol has cleared out of the body, or the patient has received an IV drip to restore hydration.”

If you or someone you know has “too much holiday” and experiences a racing or irregular heart beat that persists for a day, go to the emergency room. While most cases of holiday heart resolve themselves without permanent negative effects, in some instances the condition could increase the risk for stroke. If in doubt, seek medical attention.

The term “holiday heart syndrome” was coined in 1978 by late cardiologist Phillip Ettinger, MD, in his study of patients with these symptoms and a history of increased alcohol intake. The study analyzed how the combined effects of common holiday behaviors could lead to heart palpitations.

But everyone should be aware of holiday heart syndrome, as the condition occasionally occurs even in patients who have consumed little or no alcohol, Dr. Elmouchi said.

“One way to prevent holiday heart and other potential risks is to avoid alcoholic drinks mixed with Red Bull or other energy beverages,” he said. “This is essentially a double whammy of alcohol and high dose caffeine.

His advice: This year, give yourself the gift of moderation. Enjoy your time with family and friends, and even your favorite indulgences, but do so in a way that keeps your heart beating healthy.