What causes hot flashes? 11 possible conditions
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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.
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.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Hot Flashes.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, June 11, 2011. Web. January 2, 2012. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hot-flashes/DS01143/METHOD=print>.
- Prior, J. (n.d.) Progesterone (not estrogen)for hot flushes in perimenopausal and menopausal women. Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Obulation Research. Retrieved Sept. 20, 2012, from http://www.cemcor.ubc.ca/help_yourself/articles/progesterone_hot_flushes
- 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, May 25, 2009. Web. January 02, 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19903037>.
- Simpkins, J., Brown, K., Bae, S., Ratka, A. (August 20, 2009). Role of ethnicity in the expression of features of hot flashes. Maturitas. 63(4) 341-6. Retrieved September 20, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19592184
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