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. This isn’t a comforting feeling
of warmth, however. For some women, it’s nearly unbearable.
While some may joke about a woman’s sudden
feeling of warmth, hot flashes are no laughing matter. They can cause insomnia,
distract you from work, and cause excessive sweating 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, which occurs as women progress toward
the menopause stage. As the Mayo
Clinic points out, however, low estrogen alone does
not cause hot flashes as patients of all ages with low estrogen don’t always
have hot flashes. Somehow, 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. As the hypothalamus regulates your body temperature, the decrease in
estrogen causes the brain to detect too much body heat. As a natural reaction
to this, some theorize the brain releases hormones to help lower body heat,
causing a patient’s heart rate to rise and blood vessels to dilate in order to
allow more blood to flow through and dissipate the heat. The increased blood flow
causes the body to produce its natural cooling method- sweat. This series of
events is what creates that heated, sweaty feeling that can be so inconvenient
While this reaction may seem normal while you
are sitting in a sauna or experiencing extreme summertime heat, it can be quite
alarming when it strikes for no apparent reason, and patients suddenly find
themselves breaking into a sweat at the most inconvenient time.
Not every woman will experience hot flashes, and
those who do will go through it at varying degrees. For some, they will pose a
small inconvenience. For others, they will disrupt everyday life. The key to
reducing symptoms may be in first understanding what makes them worse. In
general, leading a healthy lifestyle may be a way to keep hot flashes to a
minimum. Factors as obesity, inactivity, and smoking may worsen 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. According to one study, women who have naturally
lower progesterone levels tend to suffer more severe symptoms. Ethnicity may
also 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. Latina women also
experienced more frequent hot flashes in the study, although the intensity of
their hot flashes was less.
Secondary complications from hot flashes can
disrupt a woman’s life as well. Some women experience “night sweats,” a form of
hot flashes that can cause insomnia. Over time, lack of sleep 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 doctor.
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 while
taking warm baths or spending time in a sauna may worsen 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 them, the combination
could create an uncomfortable situation.
For women who suffer from 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. As 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 present. This will help you find
relief as naturally and healthily as possible.