It may not be a particularly hot day but suddenly you feel it: an intense heat washes over you, making your face and neck all red and blotchy. Or it may be the middle of the night and you’re sleeping in a comfortably air-conditioned room but you wake up soaked in sweat.
Say hello to hot flashes (also known as hot flushes), one of the most common symptoms of menopause and perimenopause. There is no evidence that hot flashes are bad for your health but they sure can be annoying—especially if you have to deal with them for years! If you can’t take the heat, read on to find out ways you can minimize your discomfort.
Causes of Hot Flashes
Science still hasn’t come up with an explanation for what exactly causes hot flashes. It’s surely linked to the hormones that go haywire when women experience menopause, or that stage in life when a woman gets her final menstrual period and does not get it for 12 straight months. (Perimenopause is the time in women’s 40s—or sometimes mid- to late 30s—when they get irregular periods for two years or more.)
In an article in Good Housekeeping, celebrity doctor Dr. Mehmet Oz states, “We know that estrogen interacts with your brain and your central nervous system, which control your body’s temperature. And we think that when hormone levels start fluctuating, as they do during menopause—or even sometimes when you’re stressed or anxious—it makes your thermostat go haywire.
Your brain thinks you’re too hot, so it opens p blood vessels in your chest, your neck, and your face; it also cranks up your heart rate and blood pressure to get blood to the surface and cool you down.”
The average age women hit menopause is 51, which was not a big deal back when life expectancy was shorter. But these days, women live well beyond 51; thus, most have to go through this somewhat trying stage and its accompanying symptoms.
Hot flash symptoms vary from person to person, but may include a wave of heat, sweating in the upper body, an increased heart rate, a tingling sensation, migraines, or nausea. How long hot flashes last is also case to case.
While the real cause of hot flashes is still unclear, there are some common triggers: drinking alcohol, consuming caffeinated products, eating spicy foods, being in a hot environment, feeling stressed, wearing tight clothing, even bending over. Those who are overweight have a higher likelihood of getting hot flashes. Chances are also high if you’re a smoker, so that’s yet another good reason to quit!
Beat the Heat
There are a number of natural ways to deal with those constant hot flashes:
1. Keep a journal. Take note of each time you get a hot flash and determine what could have been a potential trigger. After a few weeks, you’ll be able to notice a pattern and pinpoint things you have to avoid, whether it’s certain fabrics for your clothes or stressful situations.
2. Just breathe. Take deep breaths for five minutes, six times a day. You can do this when you wake up, while you’re stuck in traffic, while you’re in line at the supermarket, right before you go to bed, any time you’re made to wait. A small study showed that women who practiced deep-breathing exercises were less prone to hot flashes.
3. Get some water in you—or on you. At the first sign of a hot flash, sip on some ice water. Dr. Oz also recommends keeping a spray bottle filled with water and a few drops of peppermint or lavender oil handy—just spritz on your skin when the heat is on.
4. Drop the extra weight. A 2010 study of overweight or obese women who were put on a weight-loss program found that the more weight they lost, the less they experienced hot flashes. So eat a healthier diet and…
5. Get moving! A number of studies have found that exercise can improve—or even eliminate—hot flashes.
6. Eat some hot flash-reducing foods. Soy and flaxseed seem to lower the incidence of hot flashes. You can easily add these to your diet by subbing your regular milk or coffee creamer with soy milk and sprinkling flaxseed meal in your oatmeal.
If none of these are cutting it for you and you’re suffering from severe discomfort, talk to your doctor about possible treatments. Some women opt for medications (hormone or non-hormone) or hormone replacement therapy.
The U.S. National Institute of Aging warns that some women should not take hormones for menopause: Those who have certain kinds of cancers (breast or uterine, for example), those who have a family history of heart disease or have had a stroke or heat attack, those who have blood clots, those who have had problems with vaginal bleeding or have a bleeding disorder, those with liver disease, or those who are allergic to hormone meds.
Your trusted doctor is still in the best position to make the call when it comes to more aggressive treatments for your menopause symptoms. Together, you can make a plan to deal with constant hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms—and help you live your best life in your golden years!