The time of a woman’s life known as menopause is not a disease or unnatural event, therefore, it should not cause extreme symptoms. However, for many women it can be a challenging time filled with physical and emotional distress as all these changes to their life and body seem to be happening all at once.
Of all the changes occurring during the change of life, vasomotor flushes, or hot flashes, are the most concerning and frustrating symptom of menopause, affecting approximately 70 to 80 percent of menopausal women. Hot flashes are described as a feeling of intense radiating heat, followed by embarrassing perspiration and a rapid heartbeat in the upper torso, neck and head.
Although conventional medicine has not defined what exactly causes a hot flash, current theories suggest they are due to an age related drop in estrogen. During menopause, the endocrine system, the pituitary and the ovaries generally decrease the production of estrogen and progesterone and these hormone levels decline. This decline in estrogen levels impacts the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates body temperature. One of the effects that estrogen normally has on the hypothalamus is that it allows it to tolerate greater temperature fluctuations. Therefore, decreased estrogen equals increased temperature sensitivity, causing the hypothalamus to misread body signals and activate the body’s ‘cooling-down’ sensors, which leads to hot flashes and night sweats.
Pre-menopausal Hormonal Imbalances are Not Normal
In addition to women of menopausal age, typically 45-55, I am seeing more and more evidence of pre-menopausal hormonal imbalances in women in their twenties and thirties. Although the symptoms of hormonal imbalance are becoming more common, this is not normal. Many women of all ages, from their twenties and on, are experiencing unexplained weight gain, difficulty sleeping, irregular menstruation, memory loss, depression, decreased energy and fatigue, in addition to hot flashes and night sweats.
Hot flashes can be extremely overwhelming and frustrating symptom to live with; as a result many feel like their lives are over, like they’ve lost their identity and freedom, essentially becoming a prisoner to their hot flashes. Luckily, for some of those of menopausal age, their symptoms will run their course and dissipate, allowing these women to complete their transition through menopause symptom-free. For others, the hormonal imbalance continues and leads to a downward spiral of ill health, decreased quality of life, and fitful sleep, as a restful night’s sleep is habitually interrupted by night sweats.
Given the toxicities of the environment, it isn’t hard to understand why women of all ages are experiencing these symptoms of hormonal imbalance. While the underlying causes of hot flashes are typically as unique and diverse as the women they impact, women can take steps to stay cool by identifying personal hot-flash triggers. It’s important to note that what causes a hot flash for one woman may have little to no impact on another. Identifying and avoiding your triggers may be the first and only step you need to take to control your hot flashes. Here are some possible hot flash triggers:
1.Refined Foods and Sugar
An excess consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates causes a temporary and artificial high, which disturbs homeostasis and sets into motion a stress response. This stress response triggers an increase in temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and blood circulation. Sugar also has a vasoconstriction effect, which further increases heart rate.
The hypothalamus, confused by the stress response, begins misreading the body’s signals and triggers cooling-down sensors. With heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and blood circulation already accelerated it’s not surprise that the body’s cooling-down mechanisms go into overdrive and women experience an overpowering burst of radiating heat at one time.
Coffee’s hot-flash-inducing effect is twofold – a hot beverage and caffeine. A warm or hot beverage may warm up your body temperature just enough to leave you feeling flushed, hot and sweaty. Caffeine is a stimulant and can cause a hot flash by raising your heart rate and blood pressure. Do not be quick to jump on the decaf bandwagon, as decaf coffee still has caffeine. One study found that decaf coffee contains around 3 to 15.8 mg of coffee per serving vs. 85 mg per serving for regular coffee.
Yes, this unfortunately includes wine. Although the exact mechanism of how alcohol triggers hot flashes is still greatly debated, most researchers agree that there is a relationship between the two. An accepted theory is that alcohol consumption leads to a dramatic rise in estrogen, followed by a significant drop once the alcohol has been digested. The sudden drop in estrogen once again sends confusing signals to the hypothalamus, which responds by alerting cooling sensors, resulting in a hot flash.
4. Spicy Foods
In general, hot and spicy foods are stimulants. Spicy foods will dilate blood vessels, increase circulation and raise body temperature. Although this body temperature increase might be slight, it oftentimes is enough to trigger a hot flash.
Both emotional and physical stress can trigger hot flashes. When stressed, the body releases a hormone called epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the blood; this causes blood flow to increase, which leads to an increase in body temperature. This increase in temperature is once again, enough to trigger the hypothalamus to signal cooling sensors.
Other common triggers include pasteurized milk, peanuts, nicotine, genetically modified food, processed food, and chocolate.
So what’s a woman to do? I’m sure you’ve heard about a least a few herbs and remedies from friends or in the media, like black cohosh, wild yam complex, dong quai, chasteberry, prescription hormone creams, etc. But which ones are right for you?
While some of the remedies can relieve mild symptoms, they don’t get to the underlying cause. First, we need to determine which glands and organs are imbalanced and the driving cause behind your hormonal imbalance. Is it the adrenals? Elevated stress and cortisol levels lead to hormone imbalances that may be the leading cause of hot flashes. But, is there an underlying cause of the adrenal imbalance? Is it the kidneys? The pituitary? An imbalance in any of these glands and organs can affect another, causing an increase or decrease in hormone regulation. Here are some possible contributors to hormonal imbalances:
1. Environmental Toxins
Here’s a list of just a few environmental toxins that are commonly detected and observed to be endocrine system disruptors. Metal toxicities such as mercury, aluminum, cadmium, and lead, and chemical toxicities from personal-care products like phalates, chlorine in drinking water, formaldehyde from carpeting, new construction and furniture. Metals and chemicals are known hormone disruptors, and ultimately interrupt the hormonal communication in the cell’s exterior wall – messages can’t be given or received.
Identifying the toxins with advanced muscle testing, using supplementation to assist the body in flushing them out of the body safely, and reducing exposure, will help eliminate the underlying cause of hormonal imbalances.
There is no way around it; sugar plays a major role in causing hormonal imbalances. Sugar suppresses the immune system, causes some hormones to become overactive or underactive, and leads to serious health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
Unfortunately the average American consumes about 400 grams of carbohydrates per day, when ideally most of us would thrive at around 75 grams per day. An excess consumption of sugar and starch-heavy foods lays the groundwork for future metabolic dysfunction.
When menopausal symptoms are severe and greatly affect the quality of your life, you may need to seek the help of a qualified healthcare professional who can determine the exact root cause of your body imbalance. In order to correct the imbalance within the hormonal system, begin by eliminating your triggers: sugars, caffeine, genetically modified foods, and processed foods. Dietary changes begin with reducing (or better yet eliminating) all processed, refined junk foods, and adopting a whole-food lifestyle centered on healthy fats, protein and slow-carbohydrate vegetables and fruits. Also, beginning an interval-training exercise program will remove excess toxic cortisol from the body, which will help you better manage your stress.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances, whether they are women in their twenties or fifties, can be improved upon or eliminated. A few simple steps can lead to a symptom-free transition through menopause, so that you can experience deep sleep, improved personal and professional relationships, increased confidence, and quality of life.
Dr. Donald Piccoli is a chiropractic physician and certified in advanced Nutrition Response Testing and is the director of Holistic Solutions Health Center in Kensington, CT.