What Causes Hot Flashes

Written by Sarah Provost
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What causes hot flashes? Nobody really knows, exactly. We do know that a gland in the brain called the hypothalamus is the culprit, and we know what the hypothalamus does. But scientists don't really know why lower levels of estrogen cause the gland to act up.

The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that responds to temperature fluctuation. When the body sends a signal to the brain that it's too cold, the hypothalamus implements physical reactions such as shivering, which produces heat through the involuntary movement of muscles. During menopause, the hypothalamus receives mistaken messages that the body is too warm, and sets about trying to cool it down.

The gland's first response is to induce perspiration, which cools the skin by evaporation. Next it dilates, or enlarges, small blood vessels near the surface of the skin, which results in reddening, especially in the face and neck. The purpose of this flush is to allow the blood to radiate heat to the outside and take on coolness in a process called heat transfer. Finally, the heart starts to pound, which increases circulation and aids in heat transfer. Ironically, then, what causes hot flashes is the body's misguided attempt to cool us down! But no one knows why the brain gets that mistaken signal in the first place.

Relief Is Not Dependent on Knowing What Causes Hot Flashes

Though scientists don't know exactly what causes hot flashes, they do have several methods to control them. Eliminating spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine from your diet is a good place to start. Stress also plays a role, so anything that relieves stress, such as deep breathing, yoga, massage or exercise, is helpful. Increasing soy in your diet adds phytoestrogens, plant substances that mimic estrogen in the body. Some herbs such as black cohosh are thought to be helpful, and as a final resort, your physician can start you on a course of hormone replacement therapy.

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