Can Stress Cause Hot Flashes? What You Need to Know
Most of us are no strangers to stress. After all, many of us are partners, caretakers, parents, bread-winners, workers juggling tasks on a deadline — and sometimes, we're all of the above, 24/7. Wearing that many hats can be stressful. And all that stress can have repercussions on your health, especially if you're in perimenopause or menopause.
Stress can affect everything from our menopause symptoms to our overall health. According to the American Heart Association, women with chronic stress have an increased risk of developing certain conditions and illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, and more.
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 feel tight, increase heart rate, cause rapid breathing (hyperventilation), and make it more difficult to sleep.
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, affecting memory, concentration, mood, and even the brain’s inflammatory response. It can also affect your brain’s ability to regulate your core body temperature. There’s an area of the brain called the hypothalamus that’s responsible for regulating body temperature and blood flow based on the temperature of the environment that comes into contact with your skin.
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.
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.