When your body gets too warm, a series of reactions take place to help you cool off—sweating, dilating your blood vessels, and increasing blood flow to your skin.
And if you feel cold, your body responds by constricting your blood vessels, redirecting blood flow away from your skin toward your vital organs, and possibly making you shiver to generate heat.
This thermoregulation is important for maintaining a healthy body temperature and keeping your internal organs safe and functioning.
It is almost as if a thermostat is inside your body, similar to the one in your home that controls your heating and air conditioning.
Menopause and Hot Flashes
During menopause, you may experience hot flashes—most women do.
While menopausal hot flashes are not fully understood, they are likely related to hormonal changes (reduced estrogen and elevated norepinephrine) affecting your internal thermostat.
Researchers typically refer to this as a narrowed thermoneutral zone. This means that your body has a smaller range of temperatures that it can tolerate before triggering a response.
A minor shift in temperature could end up triggering a cooling response (sweating, flushing, etc.). You’re not actually overheating. It’s more like your “air conditioner” is turned on too easily. Your body becomes extra sensitive to changes in temperature. Then, when your body cools down a few minutes later, you may start to shiver.
Hot Flashes and Heart Health
Around 80% of women experience vasomotor symptoms (the clinical term for hot flashes) during the menopause transition. It is the most common reason women seek medical help during this time.
Hot flashes were considered a quality of life issue for a long time—they are uncomfortable but not dangerous or clinically significant.
However, more recent research has found some potential links between hot flashes and heart health.
Individuals who experience hot flashes during the early stages of menopause (perimenopause) appear to have less incidence of coronary heart disease, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases. This could indicate that your body responds to hormonal changes in a normal and healthy way.
But women who experience late-onset vasomotor symptoms may have an increased risk for coronary heart disease. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the hot flashes are causing heart issues, but rather that these later hot flashes may be a sign of an issue with your cardiovascular system.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
The connection between hot flashes and heart disease may not be directly related to menopause itself. The reason why many women with late-onset hot flashes tend to be more likely to develop the cardiovascular disease may have more to do with the shared risk factors between the two conditions.
Some of the most common risk factors for heart disease include:
- smoking cigarettes
- high blood pressure
- unhealthy diet
- socioeconomic stress
- family history
These are the same risk factors that can also increase your chances of developing hot flashes.
If you smoke cigarettes, are overweight, or have high blood pressure, you are more likely to experience hot flashes—and also, these risk factors significantly increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease.
Talk to your doctors about any symptoms you experience during menopause, especially if you also deal with other risk factors for heart disease. The presence of unusual hot flashes may provide an opportunity for early detection and treatment of cardiovascular disease before it becomes more serious.