Even though hot flash physiology has been studied for about four decades or so, scientists don’t fully understand what causes them. The prevailing theory is that menopausal hot flashes and night sweats are the result of mixed-up signaling between the body’s hormones and the brain.
Hormonal balance in the body is orchestrated by the region of the brain called the hypothalamus. As our hormones naturally shift during Peri menopause and menopause, the body resets its normal hormonal balance. Some women’s neuro-endocrine (nerve/hormone) pathways are more affected by the change than others, and symptoms such as hot flashes or night sweats, among many others, can result.
Three out of four women in menopause experience hot flashes and night sweats, but we still don’t fully understand why some get them and others don’t. In women experiencing hot flashes, it appears that the natural decrease in ovarian estrogen output in menopause leads to changes in the temperature-regulatory part of the hypothalamus. In simple terms, we think this causes a bump-down in your thermostat. Because the temperature your brain considers optimal for your body gets lowered, altered hormone-signaling just before a hot flash causes your brain to “think” you’re too hot, so it sends out “Release heat!” messages to the peripheral body.
To release this heat, the body reacts instantly by increasing heart rate and dilating vessels to circulate more blood, as well as opening the sweat glands over the skin’s surface. These are the classic vasomotor symptoms of menopause.
Hot flash and night sweat trigger #1: stress
There are many known triggers for hot flashes and night sweats, but stress — emotional and physical — is what they all have in common. Poor nutrition is a form of physical stress easily overlooked during hormonal transitions like menopause. Anxiety and other forms of emotional stress are the most commonly recognized hot flash triggers at the top of women’s lists.
Common hot flash triggers
• Anxiety or stressful events or people
• Refined carbs: sugar, foods that act like sugar in the system, and simple carbohydrates
- • Caffeine, nicotine, and stimulants in general
- • Alcohol (even one glass of wine!)
- • Hot drinks or foods — spicy or temperature-wise
- • Hot spaces, such as saunas, hot tubs, showers, and over-warm bedrooms
- • Crowded rooms
- • Lack of circulating air, poor air quality, or lack of fresh air
- • Intensive exercise — or any type of activity that heats the body up without allowing adequate cool-down time
Stress occurs on all levels in the body, and just as certain foods and drugs can be toxic to your system, so too can stress and negative emotions. They can lead to increased levels of stress hormones in just the same way fear and anxiety can. The investment your body has to make in sustaining high levels of stress hormones can end up bankrupting your other hormonal pathways — especially at menopause.
I know emotions are not faucets we can turn off and on at will, but they do always have something to teach us. Whatever your hot flash triggers, I encourage you to explore the possibility of an emotional component.
What about herbs for hot flashes and night sweats?
For decades, synthetic and equine forms of estrogen were the therapy of choice for hot flashes in menopausal and peri-menopausal women, but many women now are looking for a more natural approach, especially after the reported risks associated with synthetic hormones.
Traditional Oriental Medicine on hot flashes
According to Traditional Oriental Medicine, during menopause the body’s energy flow (known as qi) moves from the lower part of the body, where it formerly supported reproduction, up toward the heart to support our developing wisdom. Sometimes qi can move very quickly and create a hot flash.
Hot flashes can also arise from stagnant liver qi. As our principal organ of detoxification, the liver is implicated in various ways, including how well we metabolize our hormones.
The benefit to using herbs for your hot flash relief is that they work with your neuro-endocrine system, to help hormonal messaging between your brain, nervous system, and endocrine organs. Plant-based therapy can help increase or decrease cellular responses depending on what your unique body needs. We call this an adaptogenic effect, and it works because we evolved alongside the plant world. Within your cells, the responses taking place that originate from the plant world are called phyto-crine responses. Phyto-crines are the bio-active molecules in plants that share features with our own hormones and can directly connect with your endocrine system. By either encouraging the body to make more of a certain hormone, mimicking the body’s hormones, or stimulating the same response in the body as a natural hormone, plants can help the body maintain hormonal balance completely naturally and without the side effects often present with prescription medications.
5 natural ways to reduce hot flashes and night sweats —
1) Understand your triggers. The first step in pulling the plug on your hot flashes is to identify and understand your triggers. Are you more prone at certain times of the day or night? Do certain foods set you off on a heat wave?
2) Nourish your body’s neuro-endocrine pathways. Eat whole, fresh foods, and balance your meals and snacks with plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and protein. Add a top-grade multivitamin-mineral complex, essential fatty acids, and ensure an adequate supply of the micro-nutrients your body needs for neurotransmitter and hormonal balance. With a solid nutritional foundation, you will find the passage through menopause to be a lot less bumpy.
3) Stay active. Recent research suggests exercise helps calm hot flashes by reducing anxiety. In a small study looking at the effect of exercise on overall menopause symptoms, women who exercised experienced reduced hot flashes, while those who did not experienced an increase. Whatever form of exercise you enjoy makes for better hormonal health, provided it does not make you feel more stressed-out or overheated. Forms of exercise that raise core body temperature can trigger hot flashes, so be sure to provide ample cool-down time, and avoid dashing off to undertake anything stressful after your work-outs.
4) Cultivate emotional health. Make a commitment to follow a path that brings you emotional wellness. Take incremental steps to reduce stress, whatever form it takes in your life. Whether that means setting better boundaries at work, home, or within your community, learn to value your own well-being enough to keep commitments and expectations reasonable. Use your inner guidance to seek out and cultivate practices that calm rather than stimulate your inner thermometer.
5) Add gentle hormonal support when needed. Given that phyto-hormones approximate the molecular configuration of the hormones produced in our own bodies, it stands to reason that we’re better equipped to utilize them safely and effectively than pharmaceutical drugs or synthetic forms of hormone therapy. If you’re considering herbal support, a product containing a range of plant constituents, can offer synergistic benefits that a single herb may not. You may also want to explore acupuncture and Traditional Oriental Medicine (TOM), or talk to your practitioner about bio-identical hormones.-
After all, it’s your body
Waking up in a pool of perspiration at night or having to leave an important meeting because of a hot flash can be frustrating, or frightening, or embarrassing. No one likes to feel helpless or limited to one-size-fits-all solutions. Take comfort in knowing that there are safe natural ways to help limit the frequency and severity of your hot flashes and night sweats.
Your body is magnificent in its ability to recover and maintain balance through life’s transitions — sometimes it just needs more support — on both the physical and emotional planes. A natural combination approach can help you restore hormonal balance and regain personal comfort — while tuning in to your body, finding greater peace of mind, and creating better long-term health.
Jami Jones is the owner of Nature’s Cure.