Feel the heat: Hot flashes, summer heat and hormones

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(Source: 123rf.com) (Source: 123rf.com)

By Doctor Sharon Thompson

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Hot flashes and night sweats are common in menopausal women, but they can also occur in other groups including some men.

When someone experiences hot flashes, a doctor can tell with a simple blood test if the problem is related to menopause or due to some other reason.

Menopause usually occurs in the 50s, so when someone much younger has hot flashes, physicians will often look for additional causes. 

Causes of hot flashes

Some of the most common ones include:

Thyroid problems such as hyperthyroidism, which causes an overabundance of thyroid hormone, can increase the body's metabolism and lead to hot flashes and sweating. While hypothyroidism is the usual culprit in these cases, non-menopausal hot flashes can also be due to thyroid cancer.

Food and drink: Yes, food, including spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol, can trigger hot flashes. While the symptoms appear after a meal or a few drinks, this type of hot flash can often be stopped by eating lighter and limiting or eliminating caffeine and alcohol.

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Medication can bring on flushing (also known as flashing) and continue as long as you are taking them.

Stress accompanied by a rush of adrenaline can produce a feeling of warmth like a hot flash

Hormone-secreting tumors such as pancreatic tumors override the organs' ability to help the body function properly and can lead to hot flashes and sweating.

Other conditions such as HIV and tuberculosis can produce symptoms similar to hot flashes and night sweats.

Hot flashes are probably triggered in the part of the brain that regulates body temperature. If your body temperature increases too much, your brain can send signals that temporarily make the blood vessels in your skin widen (dilate). This process is called vasodilation. It allows more blood to flow through your skin, so more heat is released and your body can cool off. This is felt as a hot flash. 

Scientists believe that the reduced hormone production in the ovaries during menopause affects the regulation of women's body temperature. But it is not known for sure what causes hot flashes

How to know if you are experiencing a hot flash

Also called hot flushes, hot flashes often begin with the sensation of heat in the face, chest, or may start elsewhere and spread. 

  • There are external signs, such as sweating, and the skin feeling warm to the touch and becoming red.
  • While some women in menopause never have hot flashes, in the worst case, they can occur multiple times throughout the day. When it is hot outside, or a room is overheated, these symptoms can become exaggerated. They can also lead to night sweats and insomnia.
  • Hot flushes occur in the winter and the summer but seem to be more common in the summer, although women often find themselves opening windows and doors or putting on the fan in the wintertime because of the hot flushes. 
  • When a hot flash occurs during sleep, a drenching sweat can accompany it. Such night sweats make it difficult to get a good night's rest.
  • Up to 80% of women going through menopause experience hot flashes. 

How to manage hot flashes

Before considering medication, first try making changes to your lifestyle. Doctors recommend women make changes like these for at least 3 months before starting any medication.

  • If hot flashes are keeping you up at night, keep your bedroom cooler and try drinking small amounts of cold water before bed. 
  • Layer your bedding so it can be adjusted as needed. Some women find a device called a bed fan helpful. Here are some other lifestyle changes you can make:
  • Dress in layers, which can be removed at the start of a hot flash.
  • Carry a portable fan to use when a hot flash strikes.
  • Avoid alcohol, spicy foods, and caffeine. These can make menopausal symptoms worse.
  • If you are a smoker, try to stop not only for menopausal symptoms, but also for your overall health.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Women who are overweight or obese may experience more frequent and severe hot flashes.
  • Try mind-body practices like yoga or other self-calming techniques. Early-stage research has shown that this may help improve menopausal symptoms.

Medications for hot flashes

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of paroxetine, a low-dose selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant, to treat hot flashes. 

Women who use an antidepressant to help manage hot flashes generally take a lower dose than people who use the medication to treat depression. 

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy steadies the levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body. It is a very effective treatment for hot flashes in women who are able to use it. 

There are risks associated with taking hormones, including increased risk of heart attack, stroke, blood clots, breast cancer, gallbladder disease, and dementia. The risks vary by a woman's age and whether she has had a hysterectomy.

Buyer beware: Unproven, nonscientific "treatments" for hot flashes

You may have heard about black cohosh, DHEA, or soy isoflavones from friends who are using them to try to treat their hot flashes. These products are not proven to be effective, and some carry risks like liver damage.

Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like substances found in some cereals, vegetables, and legumes (like soy), and herbs. They might work in the body like a weak form of estrogen, but they have not been consistently shown to be effective in research studies, and their long-term safety is unclear.

At this time, it is unknown whether herbs or other "natural" products are helpful or safe. 

Other menopause symptoms and treatments

For most women, hot flashes and trouble sleeping are the biggest problems associated with menopause. But, some women have other symptoms, such as irritability and mood swings, anxiety and depression, headaches, and even heart palpitations. 

Many of these problems, like mood swings and depression, are often improved by getting a better night's sleep. The National Institute of Health has a website dedicated to providing information on hot flashes and its symptoms and treatments at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/hot-flashes-what-can-i-do.

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Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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