Heat, Hormones, and Chinese Medicine

Dear Acupuncture in the Park, why is it that some women have hot flashes into their seventies and even eighties? My poor mother still has what appears to be hot flashes several times a day, and she’s 76. She thinks she was just unlucky in the menopause lottery. What’s going on?

Answer: It’s not uncommon to see women who still struggle with hot flashes or night sweats many years after they have gone through menopause. Are their hormones to blame? Maybe, but it’s likely that there’s more going on than hormones run amok.

Within the framework of Chinese medicine, menopausal hot flashes have a lot to do with Yin and Yang. In your body, Yang acts like a warming pilot light. It maintains body warmth, transforms your food into nutrients, and keeps things moving. In contrast, Yin is more like a nourishing coolant that keeps the heat of Yang in check.

Menopause is all about hormones. There are some hormones that are more Yang in nature, like thyroid hormones. In contrast, sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone are considered to be more Yin, and they are cooling, calming, and moist. When you go through menopause, Yin in the form of estrogen and progesterone drops, which is a bit like being down a quart of coolant. Yang flares up, and the result is heat, in the form of hot flashes and night sweats.

So far so good. But how do you explain hot flashes occurring decades after menopause? Well, for most women, this menopausal heat-producing imbalance between Yin and Yang regulates itself. Most women will balance out within a year or two (often less) of the onset of the heat. However, women who are Yin depleted in nature may not be able to balance out so quickly, if at all.

Minneapolis acupuncture clinic for menopauseHow can you tell if your Yin is depleted? It may take the help of your acupuncturist to figure it out. That said, there are a few clues. Remember that Yin and nourishing, moistening, and cooling, so if you are not those things, chances are that your Yin could be out of balance. Specifically, if you have dry skin, wake up with a dry and sore throat, tend to run hot in general, struggle with insomnia, have hot hands and feet, struggle with constipation or dry stools, or tend to feel agitated, irritated, or restless, you might be dealing with a Yin deficiency.

But back to your 76-year-old mother who is still flashing. There may be other reasons beyond a Yin depletion that’s making her hot. For example, stress has the ability to heat you up, regardless of the status of Yin and Yang. In your body, stress has a way of making things “seize up” which creates heat that can feel very much like hot flashes.

Other conditions that can create heat in your body include inflammation and infection. While the problem may be localized, the heat associated with these conditions can cause hot flash-like flushing. In addition, there are people who are just constitutionally hot. They never need a sweater, are warm to the touch, and their partners describe them as furnaces.

So, the answer to your question is that it’s possible to have what feels like hot flashes well into old age. They may have started during menopause, and just stuck around because Yin never came back into balance. It’s also possible that something else is going on that’s making her hot. My suggestion is to have your practitioner of Chinese medicine do a thorough diagnosis. It’s my belief that in most cases, acupuncture, dietary tweaks, and in some cases Chinese herbs, can help things cool down.

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