Menopausal Hot Flashes
Is it hot in here - or is it me?
You're just sitting there but you're body is dripping like you've just completed a marathon. Then, within seconds of tearing off your sweater, you're freezing. Are you ill? Do you have a fever? No? Well, then it was a hot flash - and if you're a woman of a certain age you can almost bet your damp forehead it comes with the package called menopause.
Although some women seem to escape this well-associated symptom of menopause, most women will experience it to a greater or lesser degree during the years just preceding and during the change of life.
As well researched as it is, the medical profession has yet to come up with a solid explanation as to why this happens to women in menopause and perimenopause. They can occur at any point in the day, and for women in menopause, the occurrences can be between four and six times a day for a period of two to five years. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Just remember, menopause is not a disease, it's a natural transition from one phase of life to another and, as hard as it may be at times, it should be honored as such.
What, Exactly is a Hot Flash?
For the uninitiated, a hot flash is a feeling of warmth that spreads over the body, primarily in the upper body, neck, face and head. It is often accompanied with a bright red face and neck area and perspiration. Some ladies are very delicate and perspire only on the upper lip while others experience the race horse phenomena, with sweat running down the sides of the face and down the neck.
A hot flash often lasts 30 seconds or so, but those 30 seconds can be the longest in history when you're at a board meeting and get hit with a one. Some women experience hot flashes from two minutes up to 30 minutes!
They Don't Know What Causes Them ...
One theory as to the cause of hot flashes is that declining estrogen levels occurring at this period in life cause a combination of hormonal and biochemical fluctuations in the body, such as a blood rush, palpitations and sweats. Another thought is that neurotransmitters in the brain fluctuate and trigger them.
There is a hormone produced in the brain called gonadotropin hormone (GnRH) that increases when estrogen and progesterone decrease in a bid to keep fertility alive. This hormone also happens to be responsible for managing the heat sensors in the brain. So, when the hormone increases, the body thinks it is overheating and does what it needs to do to let the excess heat out - it opens blood vessels in the head and neck. Then you perspire (or sweat).
The residual effects of a hot flash, besides the wet clothing and hair, can be a feeling of exhaustion, as if you really did run a marathon. Add the joy of having them occur at night, disturbing your sleep, and you understand how some menopausal women seem to be on the edge quite often.
... But, You Can Control Them (Somewhat)
The good news is that they will eventually go away. More good news is that there are ways to handle hot flashes that do not include taking drugs - although some women have had great success with drugs.
If you happen to be a woman who has race horse sweats more than three or four times a day, you may want to talk to your gynecologist about managing your symptoms with pharmaceuticals. Otherwise, try some of these suggestions to keep the hot flashes down almost to a blush:
· Know what sets them off. There are food and drink triggers that can cause anyone to have a hot flash, and they exacerbate hot flashes during menopause. Some of the culprits are alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, and hot drinks. If you know they can trigger a hot flash either avoid them or enjoy them when you don't have to be anywhere.
· Eat to control them. While we're on the food and drink subject, research has shown that eating certain foods actually helps to keep hot flashes under control. Foods that contain plant phytoestrogens, like soy, miso, tempe, chick peas, and lentils all tend to be good foods to eat. Red meat can cause hot flashes so you might want to switch to plant proteins for a while to ease things.
· Dress in layers, with natural fibers closest to your body. Cotton and silk wick moisture away from the body and allow it to breathe. Put your warmer clothing on top so that when a hot flash strikes you can peel off a layer.
· You might want to try cotton sheets on the bed as well. They're cooler and also wick moisture away. Another thing you can do is keep the bedroom cooler at night and ditch the down duvet in favor of a lighter blanket so your core doesn't heat up do much.
· Drink lots of water and learn to relax. Meditate, enjoy some yoga or T'ai Chi, or just sip a cool drink and listen to soothing music.
The Rite of Passage
Menopause is a rite of passage for women as they leave the childbearing years and enter the phase of life where they can explore new avenues. It is a time of change and a time to look forward. Learn more of what to expect during these years in our section on menopause. And, learn more from a doctor's perspective on hot flashes here.