What Are Hot Flashes?
Hot flashes are a sudden feeling of warmth, sweating, and/or flushing that are often associated with hormonal changes like menopause. The degrees to which people feel hot flashes can vary, but it’s a very common symptom of menopause: in fact, up to 80% of menopausal women report experiencing hot flashes!
So why are hot flashes such a common condition among menopausal women and, more importantly, how do you cope with them?
The Science Behind Hot Flashes
Think about what happens normally when you’re in a hot environment. Your brain and your hormones work together to keep your body at an ideal temperature range, and going too high over that temperature threshold can lead to flushing and sweating as your body tries to cool itself off. This is the same response that occurs during a hot flash, but it can happen regardless of what the temperature actually is because your body is just more sensitive to those changes.
If you experience a hot flash, your body might react as though it’s in a very hot environment, regardless of what the temperature actually is. You might suddenly feel a very warm, uncomfortable sensation, and experience sweating and/or flushing, especially in your neck, face, and chest. On the more extreme side, some women also report headaches and feelings of anxiety during a hot flash, even likening it to an anxiety attack.
Hot flashes can also occur at night, a symptom that is generally referred to as “night sweats.”
The length of hot flashes can vary from person to person. On average, most hot flashes will last up to five minutes, although some women have reported hot flashes that last all the way up to one full hour.
Hot flashes are very often caused by changes in your hormone levels. Hormones play a role in the “control center” of your brain that senses changes in temperature and reacts accordingly, and any imbalances or fluctuations can affect that temperature control gauge. Certain triggers, like caffeine, stress, tight clothing, and an elevated room temperature can trigger hot flashes in women who are already susceptible to it.
Hot Flashes and Menopause
One of the first things that happens when you approach menopause is that your reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone, start to decrease. This leads to irregular periods, but it can also lead to a variety of other menopausal symptoms, hot flashes included.
In the case of menopausal hot flashes, it seems that decreasing estrogen levels is the problem. Scientists believe that women who experience menopause have a more limited temperature threshold - that is, they experience overheating at a lower temperature than others, so hot flashes can occur even in a room that’s at an objectively good temperature.
The length of menopausal hot flashes can last can vary among women. One study found that, on average, menopausal women had hot flashes for four years, though some lasted as long as twenty. As a general rule, though, the symptoms of hot flashes usually start to diminish when a woman reaches late menopause, around eight years after their menses stops.
Other Causes of Menopause
Menopause may be the most common culprit for hot flashes, but the problem could also lie elsewhere.
Hot flashes have also been associated with:
- Certain medications
- Cancer treatments like antiestrogen therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation
- Hypothyroidism, where your thyroid is overactive and producing too many hormones
In all these cases, your body is dealing with big hormonal changes.
Dealing With Hot Flashes
While menopausal hot flashes may seem like a given for many women, there are several things that you can do to reduce the symptoms.
Some lifestyle changes you can implement to reduce the frequency or severity of your hot flashes include:
- Being at a healthy weight. Studies have shown that women who are overweight or obese tend to report higher instances of hot flashes than women who were within a healthy weight range for their height.
Simple lifestyle changes you can try to reduce your body weight include eating at a caloric deficit while filling up on healthy whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals can also help reduce the symptoms of menopausal hot flashes. Finally, a regular exercise routine can increase your fitness level and improve your weight.
- Knowing and avoiding triggers. Many women find that their hot flashes come predictably after exposure to certain triggers, which makes them easier to avoid. For example, if you know that your hot flashes lead to night sweats, keeping a fan going and using breathable bed sheets and pillowcases to avoid overheating during the night.
There are also natural alternatives to hormone replacement therapy. For example, the herb black cohosh has been used as an effective treatment for menopausal hot flashes. This may be because it contains phytoestrogens, a plant-based compound that looks and acts similarly to human estrogen to minimize the symptoms of menopause.
There are also several other foods and herbs with phytoestrogens that you might take for reducing your hot flashes, including:
- Dong Quai
- Red clover
- Vitex / chaste berry
- Flax seeds
And because so many menopausal women deal with hot flashes, there is also a wealth of woman-curated ideas for treating your hot flashes at home including:
- Using a fan for your neck
- Keeping ice packs at the ready
- Filling water bottles with ice, both to drink and to use for temporary relief
As is the case with any health issue, don’t be afraid to reach out to your doctor if your hot flashes are impacting your quality of life.
For the majority of women, hot flashes are a true indication that menopause is approaching. While menopausal hot flashes are just part of the package that comes with fluctuating hormones, there are several natural and at-home remedies that you can try to take a little bit of the heat off of you.