Hormones Cause Hot Flashes During Menopause

John Gray

Your hormones can wreak havoc on your mood, skin and mind. While levels generally stabilize after menstrual periods, various factors, like stress and anxiety can throw them off balance again. Often times, this results in hot flashes and night sweats.

Feeling overheated and sweaty could also be the result of lower estrogen levels and infrequent ovulation -- a.k.a. perimenopause. Perimenopause can occur up to 10 years before you're even near the age of menopause. So unless you're having major menstrual issues before age 40, there's a good chance your phantom sweating could actually be early menopause. 
Low estrogen is also linked to a slowdown in the speed of brain processing, memory loss, insomnia and depression.

A recent study published in PLOS ONE that analyzed exposure to 111 chemicals in women all over the U.S. found that those with the highest levels of chemicals in their bodies experienced menopause 2 to 4 years earlier, compared with women with the lowest levels.

Some of the top products that tend to contain these 111 chemicals that were studied include plastic food storage containers, shampoos, lotions, soaps, candles, air fresheners, perfumes, and even vegetables, fish, dairy and meat products.

Another study revealed that the sooner hot flashes begin, the longer a woman is likely to have them. In other words, women who started having hot flashes before they stopped menstruating were likely to continue having hot flashes for years AFTER menopause. 

Hot flashes are probably the first symptom we think of when we think of menopause or perimenopause (the years before menopause). Hot flashes result from low estrogen levels in the brain. When estrogen levels begin to decrease, especially during menopause, the body thinks it is overheated and it triggers a physical reaction.

This causes the heart to pump faster, the blood vessels in the skin dilate to circulate more blood to radiate heat and the sweat glands release sweat to cool the body even more. And I am talking sweat, like she jumped into a swimming pool.

The whole experience feels like a hot flash spreading over the skin.

Episodes can last from 30 seconds to 10 minutes and are very infrequent, occurring 5-7 times a month or 5-7 times a day. Women are left feeling miserable, cold, clammy, soaking wet in the middle of a work meeting or in the middle of a good night's sleep.

Unfortunately, the medical profession has generally ignored natural, less risky approaches to hot flashes in favor of HRT - Hormone Replacement Therapy. Alternative approaches tend to strengthen and support the endocrine system. Natural remedies work in conjunction with a healthy diet and adequate exercise and tend to work more slowly.

Researchers at Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research studied 17,473 women who were not on hormone therapy. They found that when these menopausal women followed more low-fat diets, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they were 14% less likely to have night sweats and hot flashes after a year than the women on other diets. An even added bonus for the women on low-fat diets was they were 3 times more likely to lose weight than the ones who continued with their usual foods.

Hormone therapy for menopause is one of the most divisive subjects in medicine, hailed by some as a boon to women's comfort and well-being, vilified by others as a threat to health.

A new analysis finds truth somewhere in the middle, reaffirming previous warnings that the drugs have more risks than benefits for most women but also stating that the harms are low early in menopause and that hormones are appropriate for symptom management in some women.

Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, the first author of the analysis and a professor of medicine at Harvard's medical school, said in an interview that the findings should not be used as a basis for denying women treatment if they're in early menopause and have significant distressing symptoms.

The new report, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on long-term data from the Women's Health Initiative, a large, federally funded study that turned medical thinking on its head a decade ago by uncovering the risks of hormones.

The new report is the first to include extended follow-up data from the original health initiative study, an additional six to eight years' worth of information on about 80 percent of the original participants. They took a combination of estrogen and progesterone, estrogen alone or placebos for several years.

For combined hormones, for every 10,000 women taking the drugs, the new analysis found that there were six additional instances of heart problems, nine more strokes, nine more blood clots in the lungs and nine more cases of breast cancer. On the benefit side, there were six fewer cases of colorectal cancer, one fewer case of uterine cancer, six fewer hip fractures and one fewer death. Most of the effects wore off once the drugs were stopped, but the risk of breast cancer remained slightly elevated.

Women who took estrogen alone actually had a reduced risk of breast cancer; the reason is not known. For other conditions, the results were similar to those for combined hormones. But estrogen alone can be given only to women who have had their uterus removed, because estrogen alone increases the risk of uterine cancer. In women who still have a uterus, the estrogen must be combined with some form of progesterone.

For both types of hormone treatments, the risks were lowest in the youngest women, ages 50 to 59, and highest in women from 70 to 79.

In 1993, when the study began, millions of women were taking the drugs to relieve hot flashes and vaginal dryness. There was also a widespread belief that hormones would keep women youthful and feminine, and prevent heart disease and dementia.

The study, which included more than 27,000 women age 50 to 79, provided a rude shock: it found that hormones might actually cause the ailments they were thought to prevent. The most popular treatment, the combined hormones, increased the risk of heart disease, breast cancer, blood clots, strokes, gallstones, urinary incontinence and dementia. Another treatment, estrogen alone given only to women who had surgery to remove the uterus also increased the risk of blood clots, strokes, gallstones and urinary incontinence.

Hormone use dropped sharply after the findings came out in 2002. But some doctors and patients stuck with the drugs, arguing that the risks were relatively small and had been overplayed, needlessly frightening women away from the best treatment for hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia and vaginal dryness that can take the joy out of sex.

A few years after the findings came out, the incidence of breast cancer in older women dropped significantly, something that statisticians attributed to the decline in hormone use.

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  • John Gray
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