Whether you call them flashes, flushes, or “power surges”, the sudden, intense feeling of warmth, often over the face, neck and chest, is a well-known and oft-maligned symptom as women approach menopause.
Today, the most reliable treatment to combat hot flashes is hormone replacement therapy, which uses estrogen and progesterone to ease menopausal symptoms. While hormone therapy is fairly effective (about 75% of women experienced relief in one to two months in clinical trials), it’s also risky. The Women’s Health Initiative trial, which looked at women who used estrogen and progesterone hormone therapy versus those who didn’t, found that those who used these hormones had a higher risk for heart disease, stroke and breast cancer.
As you might imagine, drug makers are working to develop non-hormonal treatment options for hot flashes, but they’ve suffered some recent setbacks. In March, the Food and Drug Administration’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee voted against allowing two already-approved drugs to be prescribed as treatment options for hot flashes, agreeing that neither drug had the data to prove it would actually work for this purpose.
So what’s a menopausal woman to do? For the moment, the safest remedies involve cooling off as quickly as possible when a hot flash begins, minimizing stress, and for some women, acupuncture.
In the future, science may offer even more effective solutions.
Researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson may be getting closer to discovering the root cause of hot flashes. The study, conducted using rats and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests a certain set of neurons in a specific region of the brain may play a role in how we regulate our body temperatures. When estrogen levels drop during menopause, these neurons appear to be more active, leading to widening of the blood vessels (vasodilation) that then causes a hot flash. The research team was able to deactivate these neurons (known as KNDy, pronounced “candy”) and the rats’ skin temperature lowered as a result.
While the study doesn’t point to a specific treatment option and there’s no guarantee the same neurons perform the same function in humans, the research may be an initial step toward a better understanding of how and why hot flashes occur. That understanding could one day translate into relief for women as they approach menopause.