Summer weather is often characterized by heat waves and being “hotter than a firecracker”—especially around the 4th of July. One thing’s for sure: it’s hot out there.
If you are of the age when you are experiencing perimenopause or menopause, however, you may be having your own version of a heat wave: hot flashes. Chances are that you are not alone, either, since there are between 46 and 50 million menopausal women in the U.S.
Additionally, estimates indicate that 85% of U.S. women will have hot flashes of some kind as they head towards menopause, as well as for the first year or two after their periods cease. Some “lucky” 20% to 50% of women may even continue to have them for several more years beyond menopause, although the intensity may decrease.
Hot flashes are seemingly caused by the hormonal changes accompanying menopause, particularly a drop in estrogen levels. This drop apparently directly affects the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for controlling body temperature. In short, the hypothalamus tells the body it’s too hot, so the brain sends out a “cool down” alert to the heart, blood vessels and the nervous system.
Transmitting the You’re so hot! message is epinephrine, norepinephrine, prostoglandin and serotonin—and the message is delivered instantaneously. In response, the heart beats faster, the blood vessels in the skin dilate to circulate more blood, and the sweat glands kick into high gear.
In summertime heat waves, this is how your body avoids overheating. When it happens via repeated hot flashes, however, there could be trouble.
Those who’ve had a hot flash know exactly what we’re talking about. It’s a sudden, overwhelmingly searing sensation that may be accompanied by sweating, nausea, dizziness, anxiety, weakness, shortness of breath or a rapid heartbeat.
Interestingly, some women’s skin temperature is reported to rise nearly two additional degrees Fahrenheit during hot flashes—which usually last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. For some women, hot flashes are so disruptive that it may take several minutes to get back to normal again.
Hot flashes can be more than just a nuisance, though, because they may also create oxidative stress and vascular changes. With each hot flash, there is oxidative stress, which can cause LDL cholesterol in the arteries and can wear down the protective inner lining of the artery known as the endothelium.
It seems that there are associations between hot flashes and subclinical cardiovascular disease including flow-mediated dilation, coronary artery calcification and aortic calcification, according to the Study on Women’s Health Across the Nation Heart Study.
That’s not good news for women who are already struggling with incessant hot flashes. It could be that the perimenopausal and menopausal years are more important than ever to be mindful of vascular and heart health.
In short, keeping those hot flashes in check may be more a matter of the heart.