Christmas is a time of great tradition, spending time with the family, giving gifts and decorating the tree. Unfortunately, another tradition we now associate with this period is overindulgence on food and drink. It’s the time of year where temptation hides around every corner, but the dangers to heart health are just as real over the festive period as any other time of year.
In what can be a trying time for cardiovascular wellness, it’s important to keep heart health in mind during through Christmas and the new year. The challenge is that with social pressures all around, there are a number of behaviours we exhibit around Christmas that can have a real impact on our heart health.
When sweet treats are everywhere and Christmas dinner temptation is all around, it can be an extremely testing time when it comes to nutrition. In fact, US studies have shown that the average American gains up to 10lbs during the festive period, with the UK not far behind at 6lbs.
To understand the impact of gut health on cardiovascular wellness, it’s important to understand the link between the two systems. The body and its wider processes work hand-in-hand with the gut microbiome; the delicate ecosystem of bacteria, or microbiota, that help us to digest food and absorb nutrients, such as short-chain fatty acids and vitamins. The gut system is constantly influencing the health of the human microbiome and vice versa, meaning a healthy digestive tract has a positive impact on our physical wellbeing.
Over Christmas, as the stomach secretes hydrochloric acid to aid digestion, the sharp increase in food means more acid is produced. When this acid moves up to the oesophagus, we get the sensation of heartburn. What’s more, larger meals slow down the rate of digestion, causing a bloated feeling as food spends more time being digested. Rising indulgence increases the risk of obesity, which brings a well-documented risk of cardiovascular diseases. This excess weight can increase blood pressure that can damage the heart, as well as increase the risk factors for strokes and heart failure.
Closely connected to the rise in overeating over Christmas is the increased intake in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) food that comes with it. High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood can clog up arteries, inhibiting the body’s ability to carry oxygen and nutrients to where they need to go, which if left unchecked can pose serious health risks.
Large build-ups of cholesterol become harder areas known as plaques, which stiffen and narrow the arteries in a process known as atherosclerosis. The tighter arteries put increased pressure on the heart, which has to work harder to pump blood around the body and can eventually weaken as a result. Additionally, blood clots can form over the plaqued areas of the arteries that can block the artery altogether, cutting off the vital blood flow. Furthermore, parts of the hardened blood clot can break away and lodge in another part of the body that can lead to a heart attack.
Cholesterol is already a quickly rising global epidemic and can sharply rise over the Christmas period as we overindulge. In fact, researchers in Denmark reported that levels of harmful cholesterol levels become 20% higher immediately after Christmas, with overall cholesterol (including high-density lipoprotein) rising by 15%.
Drink plenty of water
As we tend to drink more alcoholic beverages over Christmas, it’s important to drink plenty of water as well. Alcohol has a dehydrating effect on the body, which means topping the body up with water allows it to function at its best.
When dehydrated, the cardiovascular system can be negatively affected. During this time, the volume of blood circulating the body can be reduced meaning the heart has to work harder to pump the same volume of blood. This can lead to increased heart rate and heightened blood pressure (hypertension).
Remaining hydrated over Christmas is an essential part of maintaining heart health, but is often readily overlooked. Experts recommend that a simple glass of water is the best way to stay hydrated. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have outlined the optimum amounts for temperate climates such as the UK; for women, it’s 11 cups per day (or 2.7 litres) and for men it’s 15.5 (or 3.7 litres).
Staying healthy this festive season
In order to maintain cardiovascular health over the festive period, it’s crucial to build up body empathy. What we consume over Christmas and the activities we take part in have an important impact on the overall health of the heart.
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