Why Does Menopause Cause Hot Flashes?
Discover the causes of hot flashes during menopause, including decreasing estrogen, lifestyle causes such as obesity, and inciting factors like...

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What Are Hot Flashes?

Some women call it “the change,” but until a woman has gone through it, she most likely doesn’t know what to expect. While menopause signals the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, symptoms can begin years before menstruation stops. One of the most common symptoms is hot flashes, which is a feeling of extreme warmth.

What Menopause Does

While some may joke about a woman’s sudden feeling of warmth, hot flashes can be very disruptive to everyday life. They can cause insomnia, distract her from working, and cause excessive perspiration that makes getting through the day without a change of clothes impossible.

Decrease in Estrogen

Experts are still not completely in agreement about the cause of hot flashes during menopause. Most attribute it to the decrease in the production of estrogen, with estrogen production slowing down as a woman reaches perimenopause. As the Mayo Clinic points out, however, low estrogen alone does not cause hot flashes since patients of all ages with low estrogen have no such symptoms. It is the decrease in estrogen that accompanies menopause that is believed to be the cause.

For most women, this decrease is gradual, but many experts believe when estrogen falls, the hypothalamus is adversely affected. Since the hypothalamus regulates a person’s body temperature, the decrease in estrogen scrambles the hypothalamus, causing the brain to detect an overabundance of body heat. As a natural reaction to this, some scientists theorize the brain releases more chemicals to help lower body heat, causing a patient’s heart rate to elevate as blood vessels constrict to naturally allow more blood to flow through. The increased blood flow increases a person’s body temperature, creating that heated, sweaty feeling that can be so inconvenient for sufferers.

While this reaction may seem normal while you are sitting in a sauna or experiencing extreme summertime heat, when it strikes for no apparent reason, it can be quite alarming. Patients suddenly find themselves breaking into a sweat indoors, sometimes at the most inconvenient times.

Lifestyle Causes

Not every woman will experience menopausal hot flashes and those who do will go through it at varying degrees. The key to reducing symptoms may be in first understanding what contributes to them. In general, leading a healthy lifestyle may be a way to keep hot flashes to a minimum during menopause, with such factors as obesity, inactivity, and smoking contributing to the symptoms.

Some contributing factors are outside a person’s control. Genetics are said to play a large role in whether or not a woman has hot flashes during menopause, with a research study finding that women who have naturally lower progesterone levels suffering more severe symptoms. Additionally, ethnicity may play a role, with doctors at the North Texas Health Science Center finding that African-American women were more likely to experience more frequent and more intense hot flashes than their Caucasian counterparts. Hispanic women also experienced more frequent hot flashes in the study, although the intensity of their hot flashes was less.

Secondary complications can disrupt a woman’s life as well. Some women experience “night sweats,” a form of hot flashes that can cause insomnia. Over time, frequent insomnia can cause major problems for sufferers, with such symptoms as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and even depression. Because of this, it may become urgent to seek treatment from a qualified physician.

Inciting Factors

While many of the causes of hot flashes are outside a woman’s control, certain factors can trigger them or make already existing hot flashes worse. Alcohol and spicy foods can bring on an attack, as can caffeine. Patients may also notice exposure to hot temperatures through taking warm baths or spending time in a sauna may exacerbate symptoms. Stress can also bring on an attack. While these activities alone won’t cause hot flashes, when a patient already suffering from a drop in estrogen engages in these activities, the combination could create an uncomfortable situation.

For women suffering hot flashes, it can sometimes seem there’s no relief. But by understanding what causes hot flashes, a woman can begin to take steps to relieve symptoms. Since nobody knows a woman’s body better than she does, experts advise to note when symptoms are at their worst and try to determine what factors are exacerbating the problem. This will help you find relief as naturally and healthily as possible.

Written by: Stephanie Faris
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD, MBA
Published: Feb 15, 2012
Last Updated: Mar 14, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
Sources:
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Hot Flashes." MayoClinic.com. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 June 2011. Web. 2 Jan. 2012. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hot-flashes/DS01143/METHOD=print>.
  • Rossmanith, WG, and W. Ruebberdt. "What Causes Hot Flashes? The Neuroendocrine Origin of Vasomotor Symptoms in the Menopause." PubMed.gov. US National Library of Medicine, 25 May 2009. Web. 02 Jan. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19903037>.
  • Yadav, Dr. Rashmi. "Hot Flashes Have a Genetic Component." RxPG News. RxPG News, 25 Apr. 2007. Web. 02 Jan. 2012. <http://www.rxpgnews.com/menstruationdisturbances/Hot_flashes_have_a_genetic_component_25233.shtml>.
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