Women of a certain age know the battle all too well.
As they are phasing out of their reproductive years, changing hormones wreak havoc on everything from their hair to their sex lives and their body temperatures. Scientists may be homing in on some of the causes of that last symptom, better known as “hot flashes.” Why does a menopausal woman suddenly experience raging bursts of overwhelmingly high temperatures, seemingly without warning?
Researchers from the University of Washington say the swings seem to be related to specific brain cells that help regulate body temperature and are themselves regulated by estrogen. Found in the hypothalamus, these cells are calmed, or down-regulated, by two sex hormones. As hormone levels change during menopause, the cells can become more sporadically active, leaving a woman feeling like she’s enduring her own personal summer heatwave.
The scientists studied the activity of these neurons in female mice that had reduced levels of sex hormones. When the neurons were stimulated, the animals experienced a process called vasodilation, or the widening of the body’s blood vessels. The natural response to vasodilation is for blood to rush to the skin, where many thermal receptors lie.
Then, the mice underwent a notable increase in skin temperature.
Though more research is needed, the scientists believe a similar course may happen in humans. The study also showed the process could be halted in mice by using medication to block certain hormone receptors in the hypothalamus, near the cells thought to be responsible for it all. One day, a pill might be the best weapon against hot flashes.
Until then, crank up the air-conditioning, ladies!