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 for sufferers.
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.
Changing Estrogen Levels: What it Means For Your Body
Menopause is a time in a woman’s life that signals she is no longer able to have children. During the process, the ovaries stop making eggs and they produce less of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen plays an important role in regulating the monthly menstrual cycle and also believed to accelerate metabolism, increases “good” cholesterol, and maintains mental health.
The change in estrogen levels is what produces symptoms of menopause. Besides hot flashes and menstrual changes, symptoms can include mood swings, rapid heartbeat, and sleeping problems, among others.
The Hypothalamus: The Body’s Internal Thermostat
Current thinking in medicine is that the drop in estrogen during menopause triggers changes in the hypothalamus, which controls the body’s internal temperature. As a result, the hypothalamus releases chemicals that increase heart rate and send extra blood to the surface of your skin.
Besides acting as a thermostat, the hypothalamus also controls hunger, thirst, sleep, fatigue, and your body’s natural sleep pattern, or circadian rhythm. The decrease in estrogen levels can lead to sleep disturbances, nausea, and other menopause symptoms besides hot flashes.
Another problematic symptom menopause is increased sweating. This can be an uncomfortable side effect of hot flashes, and night sweats can even disturb a good night’s sleep.
Sweating is your body’s natural air conditioner. When body heat rises, your hypothalamus excretes hormones that tell your blood vessels to dilate. Warm blood heats the skin, causing sweat glands just below the skin’s surface to release sweat in order to cool you down. During menopause, hot flashes can trigger sweating even when you’re not really overheating.
Menopause is a major point in any woman’s life. Estrogen plays an important part in protecting a woman’s body, and decreased estrogen can put postmenopausal women at risk for certain diseases and medical conditions, such as heart disease, depression, and osteoporosis, a condition where bones become brittle and susceptible to fractures. Sexual changes are apparent as well. Vaginal dryness and decreased sexual desire are common for women after menopause.
Managing the Symptoms of Menopause
Menopause is something every woman will go through, but there are numerous treatments to help alleviate and manage symptoms. While hormone therapy was once a popular treatment, it has been shown to cause an array of adverse health effects and its use in treating menopause is being reconsidered.
However, there are numerous medications, supplements, and lifestyle changes that can address individual symptoms and provide relief.