How Stress Can Cause Hot Flashes
Women are no strangers to stress. We lead stressful lives. We’re caretakers, parents, bread-winners, and one-woman cleaning crews (more often than not) 24/7. Between family stress, work stress, relationship stress, financial stress, and just general life stress, it’s a miracle we manage to stay as functional as we do on a consistent basis.
Still, stress is there, whether you recognize it or not. Just because you do something else to distract yourself from it, doesn’t mean it goes away. That same stress can have repercussions on your health, especially for perimenopausal, menopausal, and postmenopausal women. It can affect everything from menopause symptoms to overall health, and women with chronic stress have an increased risk of developing certain conditions and illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, and more.
How can it do this?
How The Stress Response Works
The stress response is the physical and psychological response the body has to certain situations. When the body triggers a stress response, stress hormones are released by the adrenal glands and sent throughout the bloodstream. These stress hormones then affect other systems in the body. They can make muscles tight, increase heart rate, cause rapid breathing (hyperventilation), and make it more difficult to sleep.
How do they do this? When stress hormones are released by the adrenal glands, they circulate throughout the bloodstream and into the major blood vessels that supply blood to all bodily systems. Yet, where they have the biggest impact is in the brain.
The Brain Under Stress
Stress hormones have a huge impact on your brain. Stress affects a variety of cognitive functions and can even impair them. Stress can affect things like memory, concentration, mood, anxiety, depression, neural activity, nerve cell health, and even the brain’s inflammatory response.
Stress also affects your brain’s ability to regulate your core body temperature. There’s an area of the brain that’s responsible for regulating body temperature and blood flow based on the temperature of the environment that comes into contact with your skin. This area of the brain is called the hypothalamus.
When the hypothalamus operates effectively, it tells your skin when to release sweat. The hypothalamus gathers information from other cells that help it determine the outside temperature and if the body’s internal temperature is rising as a result. Once it collects this information, it senses that the body is overheating. To prevent this from happening, it sends signals to the sweat glands to release sweat onto the skin. This helps cool the surface of the skin and lower body temperature from the outside-in.
However, what happens then the hypothalamus doesn’t work correctly, like say...during menopause? During menopause, the decrease in estrogen affects estrogen receptors in the skin and the brain. When these estrogen receptors don’t gain enough estrogens to bind onto, they have a difficult time sending your brain the information it needs to perform certain processes, like regulating body temperature.
When the hypothalamus doesn’t gain enough information sent by estrogen receptors, it senses even the slightest change in temperature as a potential threat to cause the body to overheat. In an effort to prevent this from happening, the hypothalamus sends signals to the rest of the body to increase blood flow and heart rate to raise body temperature. Once core body temperature rises, the sweat glands will trigger the release of sweat onto the skin and cool the body down. Does this sudden rush of heat sound familiar? It’s a hot flash!
How Does Stress Cause Hot Flashes in Menopause?
So if hot flashes are caused by increases in blood flow, heart rate, and ultimately, tricking the hypothalamus, how does stress play a role in this process? Stress hormones increase the heart rate, which in turn, increases blood pressure and the rate at which blood flows. It naturally raises core body temperature. How?
The emotional response that accompanies stress, particularly in women, closely resembles anxiety. This means that stress hormone levels are at extremely high levels. For women, this is especially difficult to deal with as more women are likely to experience chronic stress than men. When stress hormone levels are high enough for prolonged periods of time, they start to take on the behavior of toxins in the body and radically change the regulatory processes that affect the immune system, the brain, and more.
Here’s what happens to menopausal women during a period of high stress. Stress hormones send signals to the brain to elevate heart rate and blood flow. When this happens the hypothalamus registers these events as a sign that the body is overheating. So, the hypothalamus does what it does best in this situation, it sends a message to the body to pump blood more quickly which signals the sweat glands to start producing sweat. The sweat glands release sweat onto the surface of the skin and begin to cool the body down from the outside. Stress is considered a hot flash trigger because of its impact on the heart rate and blood pressure, both of which are processes that the hypothalamus attempts to control.
Stress Management is Crucial
Managing stress can help support hot flash relief and many other menopausal symptoms. However, finding ways to reduce and cope with stress can be difficult and specific to each individual woman. There are ways to help manage stress and stressors in daily life effectively. Interested in learning more about stress management to avoid hot flashes? Be sure to check out next week’s article to get an in-depth look at stress management techniques.