Physiology of hot flashes


  • Robert R. Freedman

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan
    2. Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan
    • Wayne State University, C. S. Mott Center, 275 E. Hancock Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201
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Hot flashes are the most common symptom of the climacteric, although prevalence estimates are lower in some rural and non-Western areas. The symptoms are characteristic of a heat-dissipation response and consist of sweating on the face, neck, and chest, as well as peripheral vasodilation. Although hot flashes clearly accompany the estrogen withdrawal at menopause, estrogen alone is not responsible since levels do not differ between symptomatic and asymptomatic women. Until recently it was thought that hot flashes were triggered by a sudden, downward resetting of the hypothalamic setpoint, since there was no evidence of increased core body temperature. Evidence obtained using a rapidly responding ingested telemetry pill indicates that the thermoneutral zone, within which sweating, peripheral vasodilation, and shivering do not occur, is virtually nonexistent in symptomatic women but normal (about 0.4°C) in asymptomatic women. The results suggest that small temperature elevations preceding hot flashes acting within a reduced thermoneutral zone constitute the triggering mechanism. Central sympathetic activation is also elevated in symptomatic women which, in animal studies, reduces the thermoneutral zone. Clonidine reduces central sympathetic activation, widens the thermoneutral zone, and ameliorates hot flashes. Estrogen virtually eliminates hot flashes but its mechanism of action is not known. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 13:453–464, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.