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Why do we flush?

Flushes and sweats are the classic, well known symptoms of the menopause, or of etsrogen deficiency. We have all heard of them yet we still know relatively little about why they happen and why there is such variation in their severity and duration. From what we do know, it seems that we have a thermostat in the brain which regulates our body temperature. If our core temperature rises, as happens if we have an infection, a fever, then our thermostat triggers cooling down mechanisms such as opening up surface blood vessels (the flush) and switching on sweat production. These measures ensure that our body organs do not become too hot. In the reverse situation, if our core body temperature falls, our thermostat switches on heating up mechanisms such as shivering, in order to maintain temperature.

During every day, our core temperature fluctuates by a few degrees but our thermostat works within a buffering zone, so that we don’t spend the whole day flushing, sweating or shivering.  Even additional changes in temperature as brought about by hot or cold drinks, being outside or inside, emotion or stress do not normally lead to triggering by the thermostat. However, with estrogen deficiency of the menopause, the thermostat changes in action so that even the normal daily temperature changes and additional ones described, can lead to unnecessary flushes, sweats and shivers—the thermostat thinks that the body is over-heating, or over-cooling when it is not.

While it appears that estrogen deficiency is a cause of changing thermostat function, it is clearly not the only factor since menopausal women, with the same changing and low levels of estrogen, can have very different levels and duration of symptoms. Dietary and lifestyle factors are involved with being overweight, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and smoking leading to worse symptoms. Other chemicals such as serotonin, noradrenaline and gamma aminobutyric acid are also likely to be involved and the recognition of their involvement has led to the development of other non-hormonal drugs which can be prescribed to reduce symptoms in women who are not able or willing to take HRT.

So while research continues into the mechanisms and treatments for flushes and sweats, we should try to maintain healthy weight, eat healthy, balanced diet, minimise alcohol and caffeine, not smoke, take plenty of exercise, wear loose layered clothing, generally look after ourselves and consider treatments to minimise symptoms of the menopause and the impact that they may have on our lives.

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Page last updated: 16 February 2015

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