What Causes Hot Flashes?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

Some women call it “the change.” Until a woman has gone through menopause, she most likely doesn’t know what to expect. While menopause signals the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, symptoms can begin years before menstruation stops. One of the... Read More

Some women call it “the change.” Until a woman has gone through menopause, she most likely doesn’t know what to expect. While menopause signals the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, symptoms can begin years before menstruation stops. One of the most common symptoms is hot flashes, which is a feeling of extreme warmth. This isn’t a comforting feeling of warmth. For some women, it’s nearly unbearable.

While some people joke about hot flashes, for many women they are no laughing matter. They can cause insomnia, distract you from work, and cause excessive sweating that makes getting through the day without a change of clothes impossible.

Decrease in estrogen

Experts are still not in agreement about the cause of hot flashes during menopause. Most attribute it to the decrease in the production of estrogen, which occurs as women move toward the menopause stage. The Mayo Clinic points out that low estrogen alone does not cause hot flashes. Women of all ages may have low estrogen, and they don’t always have hot flashes. Rather, it’s the decrease in estrogen during menopause that experts believe to be the cause of hot flashes.

For most women, this decrease is gradual. Many experts believe that when estrogen falls, the hypothalamus section of the brain that regulates your body temperature detects too much body heat. Some theorize that the brain then releases hormones to help lower body heat. This causes your heart rate to rise and blood vessels to dilate in order to allow more blood to flow through and dissipate the heat. The increased blood flow causes the body to produce its natural cooling method: sweat. This series of events creates that heated, sweaty feeling that can be so inconvenient for women.

This reaction may seem normal while you are sitting in a sauna or experiencing extreme summer heat. It can be quite alarming when it strikes for no apparent reason, and women suddenly find themselves breaking into a sweat at inconvenient times.

Hot flash causes

Not every woman will experience hot flashes. Those who do will experience them in varying degrees. Hot flashes are just a small inconvenience for some women. For others, they disrupt everyday life. The key to reducing hot flash symptoms may lie in leading a healthy lifestyle. Try avoiding what may worsen symptoms, including:

  • inactivity
  • smoking
  • obesity (if you are overweight, talk to your doctor about how to lose weight)

Some factors that contribute to hot flashes are outside of your control. Both genetics and ethnicity may play a role. Doctors in Texas found that African-American women are more likely to experience frequent and intense hot flashes than Caucasian women. Latina women also experienced more frequent, though less intense, hot flashes than Caucasian women.

Secondary complications from hot flashes can disrupt a woman’s life. Some women experience “night sweats,” a form of hot flashes that can cause insomnia. Lack of sleep at night can cause you problems during the day. See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • memory loss
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • depression

Reducing hot flashes

While many of the causes of hot flashes are outside a woman’s control, certain triggers can cause them or make them worse. Common triggers include:

  • alcohol
  • spicy foods
  • caffeine
  • stress
  • exposure to heat, as in warm baths or a sauna

While these activities alone won’t cause hot flashes, they may be contributing factors in combination with already declining estrogen levels.

If you experience hot flashes, it can sometimes seem like there’s no relief. By understanding what causes hot flashes, you can begin to take steps to relieve symptoms. Pay attention to what factors are present when symptoms are at their worst. Identifying these triggers will help you find relief as naturally and healthfully as possible.

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI on October 25, 2016Written by Stephanie Faris


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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

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