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Hot flashes

What are hot flashes?

Most often associated with menopause, hot flashes may also be brought on by certain cancers or treatments, especially those that impact the body’s hormonal balance or ability to regulate temperature. Treatments that trigger early menopause—like chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, for example, or surgery to remove the ovaries—may also spark hot flashes.

The reaction is often caused when hormone levels drop. That change affects the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls body temperature and other functions, causing it to misread the signal as a sign that the body is too hot. Epinephrine, the nervous system’s message carrier, transmits that message instantly throughout the body. Hot flashes are the body’s attempt to get rid of the heat, quickly. The heart starts to pump faster, blood vessels in the skin dilate to release heat, and the skin starts to sweat in an attempt to cool the body off.

The feeling most often comes on suddenly, sometimes starting with an uneasy feeling, followed by intense heat in the face and/or upper body. The warmth may then spread throughout the body. Hot flashes typically last from 30 seconds to 30 minutes and may be preceded or accompanied by a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, headache, anxiety or nausea. They very often lead to extreme sweating (sometimes called “night sweats” when triggered during sleep) and can leave the body soaked.

Aside from the physical discomfort and stress it may cause, hot flashes also may lead to difficulty sleeping, which can develop into chronic insomnia, further impacting overall well-being. Patients who experience hot flashes consider it an important detrimental impact on quality of life, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

How likely are cancer patients to experience hot flashes?

Hot flashes are common side effects for cancer patients, especially women, but they also impact some men, according to the NCI. The institute estimates that hot flashes impact about two out of three postmenopausal women who have had breast cancer, and 44 percent of them also experience night sweats.

How can integrative care help?

Personalized integrative care plans may help, but each must be designed specifically for the individual involved, because some supportive therapies may not be appropriate for patients with hormone-related cancers.

Acupuncture

A 4,000-year-old practice that originated in China, acupuncture has had some measure of success in reducing the frequency and intensity of hot flashes. For example, a 2014 review by The North American Menopause Society of 104 studies found that menopausal women who underwent acupuncture saw a drop in the severity and frequency of hot flashes for up to three months. The NCI points out, though, that more studies are needed. Acupuncture uses tiny needles inserted gently at certain “acupoints.” Patients seeking relief from hot flashes typically receive weekly acupuncture sessions, including acupressure, electro-acupuncture, laser acupuncture and ear acupuncture. Since results are cumulative, patients may see improvement after successive sessions.

Mind-Body Medicine

Therapies that help with negative emotions such as stress and anxiety may help alleviate hot flashes, according to the NCI. Mind-body therapists may help patients learn coping strategies and stress-management techniques. Breathing and relaxation exercises may lower the heart rate and promote a sense of calm, helping to lessen the symptoms that come with hot flashes. Guided imagery, which teaches patients to visualize themselves in a calming environment that brings them a sense of peace and physical and emotional comfort, may also help. Hypnosis has also been helpful for some women in reducing the occurrence of hot flashes.