Home » Sobriety » Holiday Heart: Why Your Heart Races After Drinking Alcohol

Holiday Heart: Why Your Heart Races After Drinking Alcohol

After a night of heavy drinking, there are a number of symptoms you expect to suffer through the following day: nausea, headaches, malaise, and a whopping case of “why-did-I-do-that?”

But what happens when you’re also met with a racing heart that feels like it’s about to pound right out of your chest? 

Did the alcohol do that?

If you’ve ever woken up after a night of drinking to a racing heart, you’ve likely experienced something called holiday heart syndrome. 

This happens when alcohol triggers atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF), which Banner Health describes as “an irregular rhythm in the upper chambers of the heart, which can feel like fluttering or rapid pounding sensations in the chest.” 

To be frank, holiday heart is scary as hell. It’s landed me in urgent care, strapped to an EKG machine, on at least two occasions. 

If you’ve experienced a racing heart after drinking, it’s important to understand why it’s happening, but also to take it seriously.

You don’t want to brush this off as some quirky hangover symptom.

A woman grasps her heart which races after drinking alcohol
what is holiday heart?

Why Does Alcohol Make Your Heart Race?

Okay, so why is holiday heart a thing

Holiday heart is a term coined back in 1978. It describes what happens when people without any known heart disease suddenly experience an irregular heartbeat, usually after a big celebration or weekend of overindulgence and heavy drinking. 

But why does it happen?

When you drink a moderate to heavy amount of alcohol (especially if you binge drink quickly), it can disrupt the electrical signals between the cells in your body, including the signals that keep your heart beating at the right pace. 

This can lead to irregular heartbeats, including palpitations where you are suddenly hyper-aware of your heartbeat, and feel sensations like racing, fluttering, or pounding in your chest

There are other reasons, too. 

The American College of Cardiology sites three main culprits:

  • Effects on Cells: Alcohol can damage cells. One effect of this cellular damage is that it can lead to small amounts of fibrous tissue in the heart, which can also cause irregular heartbeats. 
  • Electrophysical Effects: This refers to the aforementioned electrical signals. Long-term drinking and short-term binge drinking can disrupt and even change the electrical signals our heart relies on to contract in a coordinated way. This also leads to irregular heartbeats.
  • Effect on the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS): Besides the direct effects on heart cells, alcohol can also mess with the body’s autonomic system, the part that controls involuntary actions like heart rate. After binge drinking, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is more active. This can shorten the time it takes for the heart’s electrical system to reset, making AFib more likely.

Holiday Heart Risks Extend Beyond Drinking

It’s worth noting that holiday heart isn’t exclusively about alcohol. When excessive drinking is combined with large meals that include a lot of fat and salt, it can increase the risks of AFib. 

Additional risk factors include excessive caffeine consumption and stress – two things we may experience during holidays or vacations as well. 

So if you’re drinking heavily, gorging on fatty, salty food, slamming coffees, and feeling a bit of stress (Oh hey, holiday season!), you’re at a higher risk of experiencing holiday heart. 

close up of someone clutching their chest
why your heart races after drinking alcohol

Additional Factors That Make Your Heart Race After Drinking

There are a few other factors that can contribute to a racing heart after or while drinking. Let’s break them down:

  • Vasodilation: Alcohol can cause blood vessels to expand (vasodilation), which may decrease blood pressure. The heart compensates by beating faster, which can lead to an increased heart rate.
  • Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes the body to lose more fluid by making you pee a lot. Dehydration can cause a decrease in blood volume, which also makes the heart pump harder and faster to circulate blood throughout the body.
  • Stimulant Effects: If you drink alcohol mixed with energy drinks or other stimulants, this can also increase heart rate. 
  • Body’s Reaction to Toxins: Alcohol is metabolized by the liver into acetaldehyde, which is toxic to our bodies. In response to these toxins, the body might increase heart rate as part of its effort to metabolize and eliminate them.
  • Individual Sensitivities: Some people may have a genetic predisposition or underlying health conditions that make them more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. This can cause a more pronounced increase in heart rate even with moderate consumption. In fact, a study by the American College of Cardiology noted that people who drink even smaller amounts of alcohol on a daily basis are also at risk.

This last point is an important one: you don’t have to binge drink or go overboard to experience a racing heart from alcohol.

Regular consumption of alcohol, even at low to moderate amounts, over an extended period, can lead to heart problems. 

Want to dive deeper? Check out this video:

Can You Slow Down Your Heart Rate After Drinking?

Usually. If you do not have underlying health conditions like heart disease, you can probably lower your heart rate naturally. 

First, (and most obviously) stop drinking immediately. If your heart starts racing while drinking, cut yourself off. Then try the following.

  • Rehydrate: Drink a lot of water and consider an electrolyte replacement like Liquid I.V. (Don’t drink anything overly sugary). 
  • Sit down: Movement causes your heart to work harder. If you’re experiencing a racing heart, sit down and try to remain calm. Anxiety can also spike your heart rate. Unfortunately, alcohol tends to exacerbate anxiety symptoms, so that adds another layer to this issue.  
  • Breathe deeply: Once you’ve got yourself settled and calm, try some deep breathing exercises. Breathe deeply through your nose and out through your mouth. 
  • Cool off: Heat makes the effects of alcohol kick in faster. Try to get some cool air, sit inside with a fan or air conditioning, or even put an ice pack wrapped in a cloth on your forehead or back of the neck. 

Monitor your heart rate as you do this to see if it starts to come down.

If your racing heart persists, or you start to experience some other worrying symptoms, get checked out by a medical professional. 

Important to note: Sometimes people experience intense anxiety after drinking. This is known as hangixety.

Anxiety and alcohol-induced panic attacks can mimic symptoms similar to the ones I’m describing in this article, but they are not the same.

This is another reason why you should talk to a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

Read About It: Hangxiety 101: Why You Experience Anxiety After Drinking and How Alcohol Makes Anxiety Symptoms Worse.

A man sits on the floor and closes his eyes to breathe deeply

When To Get Help For Your Racing Heart

If you can’t get your heart to return to a normal rate (between 60 and 100 beats per minute) or you experience any of the following symptoms, seek medical care immediately:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Jaw, neck, shoulder, back, or arm pain
  • Numbness or weakness in your face, arm, or leg
  • Confusion

If you have a pre-existing heart condition or take medications that might interact badly with alcohol, it is especially important to exercise caution and see a doctor if you experience any issues with heart arrhythmia or palpitations after drinking. 

If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!

  • Answer a few questions.
  • Get matched with a licensed therapist.
  • Schedule your sessions.

Get 10% off your first month with code SOBERISH.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp.

The Part You Don’t Want To Hear…

So here’s the thing. If you’re experiencing irregular heartbeats after drinking, you have two options to ensure you stay healthy and avoid long-term heart problems:

  • You can quit drinking entirely
  • Or you can significantly reduce the amount you drink (no more than a drink per day, with at least two alcohol-free days per week)

The longer you carry on drinking this way, the more at risk you become for chronic conditions. The first step is to avoid binge drinking. But beyond that, it may be time to reconsider your relationship with alcohol. 

Remember the earlier study from the American College of Cardiology?

Even moderate amounts of alcohol, drunk consistently over time, can lead to heart problems. As the study notes, the more you experience irregular heartbeats after drinking (any amount), the more at risk you are of heart failure and stroke. 

If you’re curious about the quitting process, I’ve put together a Sobriety Roadmap and Resource Center that will answer all of your questions.

Take a look and see what it’s like! 

Additionally, if you have questions about your drinking habits. The following quiz can provide you some insights into drinking and risk factors. 

Take The AUDIT

The following quiz is called the AUDIT, which is short for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. It’s used by medical professionals to assess your risk for alcohol dependence. Curious about how your drinking habits stack up? Take the assessment.

This is not an official medical diagnosis nor is it medical advice. Rather this is for informational purposes only. If you have any questions or concerns, share your results with your doctor.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *