This report has been updated with #1320.
An interesting study in Fertility and Sterility shows that estrogen helps protect post-menopausal women from hot flushes by raising the temperature that makes them sweat (1). Most menopausal women go through episodes of suddenly feeling hot and then breaking out in a chilling sweat. Hot flushes can occur many times throughout the day.
All normal people can develop hot flushes when they have a fever because hot blood circulates through the brain to cause special temperature receptors in the brain to signal the body that it is too hot. Then the brain sends signals along nerves to open blood vessels in the skin, increasing the flow of hot blood to the skin and causing a sensation of heat in the skin. Then the brain tells the sweat glands to pour out sweat, which covers and wets the skin and then evaporates to cool the body.
In normal heathy people, and in women with estrogen, this usually happens only when the body temperature rise very high, usually at greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the female hormone, estrogen, is a neurotransmitter. The brain has docking sites that estrogen can attach to and affect brain function. However, when a women lacks estrogen, the hypothalamus in her brain goes haywire. It thinks that every time her temperature rises, that she has a fever and it uses its opening of blood vessels in the skin and sweating to cool her down. This is fine for a sick person with a fever, but when it happens to a healthy person, it can make her miserable.
Every healthy person has a normal circadian rhythm for temperature. Your temperature is lowest in the early morning and highest in the early evening. So when body temperature rises naturally in the afternoon or evening, a woman lacking estrogen reacts as if she has a fever.
Doctors used to think that hot flushes were caused by stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system that causes sweating, but the doctors in Pittsburgh, who did these recent studies, showed that blood and urine levels of sympathetic activation (measured by plasma 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol) do not rise with hot flushing, so hot flushes are caused by lack of estrogen and anything that replaces estrogen helps prevent hot flushes.
Doctors also used to think that estrogen pills and shots are the only treatments for hot flushes that occur during menopause. But recent studies by Drs. Catherine and Patricia Eagon in Pittsburgh show that licorice, dang gui, hops and blue cohosh bind to estrogen receptors on cells, and help control hot flushes. Several other studies show that eating plants loaded with plant estrogens also help control hot flushes. Many postmenopausal women will benefit from a diet that is high in phytoestrogens, found in many vegetables such as sweet potatoes, whole grains such as wheat berries, beans such as soy beans, and other seeds such as flax seeds.
1) Estrogen raises the sweating threshold in postmenopausal women with hot flashes. Fertility and Sterility, 2002, Vol 77, Iss 3, pp 487-490. RR Freedman, CM Blacker. Freedman RR, Mott Ctr Human Growth & Dev, 275 E Hancock St, Detroit,MI 48201 USA. 2) Presented March 31, 1998 at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in New Orleans.
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