What comes to mind when you think about menopause? For most people, it’s hot flashes.
That’s because the experience is both unusual, and unique. When else does your body’s thermostat fly off the rails?
What are hot flashes? Why do they happen? What can you do about them? Let’s answer a few of these questions together, and see if we can’t remove some of the mystery from this menopausal menace.
What are hot flashes?
During menopause, the hypothalamus (the part of our brain that controls our body temperature) sometimes likes to shake things up. When this happens, women experience the sensation of great heat. The heat generally starts in the chest, ballooning upward and out, especially into the neck and face.
Sweat and reddening of the skin of the face are common.
The unprovoked heat and sweat are usually fairly uncomfortable, and many women are embarrassed by the visible nature of the effects.
Hot flashes last from a few seconds, to a few minutes, but some women have reported needing as much as a half hour to fully recover.
Will I experience them?
It’s estimated that about 75% of women will experience hot flashes at some point.
The intensity, duration, and frequency vary from woman to woman. But with 3 out of 4 women going through them, odds are good that if you haven’t, you will.
Because we aren’t exactly sure why hot flashes vary for different women, it’s hard to predict what any one woman’s experience will be. One good way to approximate how hot flashes will affect you, is to talk with your mother, or older sisters. Family history is currently the most accurate predictor.
Why do they happen?
The science on hot flashes is still largely unsettled. We do know that spontaneous over-activity of the hypothalamus is the cause, but it’s still somewhat unclear what provokes this pattern.
A late pioneer in the field of hormone study, Dr. John R. Lee suggested that the performance of the hypothalamus can be impacted by consistently ignored signals to produce estrogen and progesterone.
There’s an area in the hypothalamus that monitors the levels of estrogen and progesterone and, when levels get low, this region of the brain sends out the signal to produce more. During fertile years the ovaries respond to this signal by producing the hormones as instructed.
With the onset of menopause, the ovaries fail to produce, at least to the levels called for by the regulatory part of the hypothalamus.
When hormone levels fail to rise, the hypothalamus begins to “shout” it’s message louder by producing more and more of the chemicals that previously prompted production. Dr. Lee describes the result of all of this commotion in this excerpt from his bestselling book “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause”:
In effect, the hypothalamus begins “shouting,” trying to tell the pituitary to tell the ovaries to ovulate. The inability of the ovaries to respond is most likely due to a depletion of eggs and their surrounding follicle cells. This over-activity of the hypothalamus and pituitary signal begins affecting adjacent areas of the brain, which we’ll call the vasomotor center (specifically the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus that controls capillary dilation and sweating mechanisms), and these are the women that get hot flashes and night sweats.
What can be done?
Hot flashes (and night sweats) do go away eventually. Unfortunately, women often suffer through them for years before they’ve run their course.
There are a ton of tips out there for dealing with hot flashes. Some of the most common, are also the most obvious:
- Keep your home’s temperature lowered.
- Wear layers for easy adjustment.
- Have a fan nearby.
- Sleep with multiple blankets so you can ditch them when needed.
Other tips are less intuitive:
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Both chemicals are common hot flash triggers.
- Exercise regularly.
- Take note of when your hot flashes occur. Different environment or mental/emotional stimuli, have the potential to trigger you.
Dietary changes are also recommended to put you in the best shape during menopause, but that’s a whole different article (spoiler alert: carrots are good and cupcakes are bad).
But all of these tips aren’t really an answer to hot flashes. They’re ways to make them more bearable, or decrease their frequency.
In order to correct the problem that Dr. John R. Lee suggests is at the core of hot flashes, you have to elevate levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These days, you have options for supplementing. While it used to be that hormone supplementation meant synthetic pharmaceuticals, there are now natural, bio-identical solutions for raising estrogen and progesterone.
Hot flashes and night sweats may be inconvenient, but they don’t have to be feared. They certainly shouldn’t limit the quality of your daily life. And there are some great options for getting the upper hand!
Kraft, Sheryl. “8 Ways to Deal With Hot Flashes in the Heat.” www.healthywomen.org. Healthy Women. 2011. Web. 5 June 2016.
Lee, John R. What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2004. Print.