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What causes hot flashes?

By | March 24th 2012

They are mostly caused by the hormonal changes during menopause, mainly the diminished levels of estrogen, writes DR BRIGID MONDA

For women who have had hot flashes, there is no mistaking it — a feeling of heat in the face, neck and chest followed by a bout of sweating, weakness and a feeling of suffocation. The sweating may be merely a moist upper lip or you are soaked in sweat and then a chill follows.

Some women experience an ‘aura’, an uneasy feeling just before the hot flash that lets them know what’s coming.The aura may be a feeling of pressure in the head and palpitations then the actual wave of heat follows.

Hot flashes are mostly caused by the hormonal changes of menopause, mainly the diminished levels of estrogen. The hypothalamus is that part of the brain responsible for controlling your appetite, sleep cycles, sex hormones, and body temperature.

It is the body’s thermostat and is affected by the low levels of estrogen which often leave it ‘confused’ making it read the body’s temperature as ‘too hot’ when it is not. The hypothalamus then triggers the cooling systems of the body to bring down the body’s temperature so your heart pumps faster to get blood around the body to radiate off this excess heat and deliver more blood to the blood vessels in your skin. Your sweat glands, the body’s natural ‘air conditioners’, step up their production of sweat which evaporates from the skin cooling it down.


This heat releasing mechanism is how your body keeps you from overheating on a hot day. So a hot flush is actually your body’s normal cooling system triggered into action by a ‘confused’ hypothalamus.

Your body cools down when it shouldn’t, and you are left soaking wet in the middle of a board meeting with an urge to strip down because your clothes suddenly feeling too heavy to wear! Sleep is interfered with leaving you cranky and irritable the next day.

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The frequency of hot flashes varies from many a day to no more than several a year and tend to occur more at night.There is also considerable variation in when they start to occur, how long they last, how often they come and their very nature and intensity.

An episode can last a few seconds, a few minutes, or occasionally longer and it can take another half hour for you to feel yourself again. The faster you go through the transition from regular periods to no periods after you menopause , the more intense your hot flashes will be. The flashes are also common after surgical menopause when both ovaries are removed through an operation if there is disease or if you are having chemotherapy for treatment of cancer.

This because the drop in estrogen is abrupt rather than gradual as nature intended it to be. Overweight or muscular women experience less severe hot flashes than thin women because they tend to have higher levels of estrogen.

Women who smoke damage their blood vessels so they are less able to radiate off heat, so they tend to suffer more severe hot flashes.

Other medical conditions and drugs can cause hot flashes too like the drug tamoxifen used for treating breast cancer, thyroid gland disease and obesity.

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