Two of the most common complaints about menopause are hot flashes and night sweats. This uncomfortable symptom affects about three-quarters of women in perimenopause (the time before actual menopause).
Once a woman has reached menopause, she may continue to have symptoms for 6 months to 5 years, and in some women, they may persist for 10 years or even more.
A healthy lifestyle can reduce the incidence and severity of hot flashes and help reduce the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. You can start by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and quitting smoking.
What Are “Hot Flashes?”
If you’re asking this question, chances are you’ve never experienced one!
Hot flashes, night sweats, and hot flushes (as they’re known in the UK) are medically known as vasomotor symptoms.
Hot flashes are caused by a sudden increase of blood flow to the face, neck and chest, characterized by sensations of intense heat that radiate from the chest, neck and face, during the day or at night, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Another lovely feature is the profuse sweating that you can feel when hot flashes kick in.
These flashes can be accompanied by redness, sweating, chills, and (more rarely) dizziness. Hot flashes are most common in women, especially during perimenopause, menopause or before menstruation (during premenstrual syndrome), but they can also occur in men.
What Is “Estrogen Addiction?”
It is a common practice for women to take estrogen, during perimenopause and menopause, to help control hot flashes.
When you quit taking estrogen for hot flashes, your body’s level of estrogen decreases. It starts to experience vasomotor symptoms, usually defined as increased night sweats, hot and cold flushes.
However, a lesser-known fact is that estrogen can enhance addictive behaviors in women.
The withdrawal symptoms can impact your daily routine and make you feel fatigued, so you end up taking it again and again – resulting in addictive tendencies.
Who Experiences Hot Flashes?
Up to 85 percent of all women going through menopause will experience hot flashes.
For most women around the age of 50, hot flashes and menopause are an inseparable pairing. The majority of women experience them before their menstruation becomes more irregular.
When entering menopause, hot flashes can be more frequent and more intense. The causes of hot flashes are not yet fully understood. Researchers suspect, however, that the heat regulation is disturbed and at the same time the estrogen production fluctuates considerably.
Symptoms of Hot Flashes
Typical symptoms of hot flashes are:
- A sudden, intense wave of heat moving through your face, neck and chest
- Rapid heartbeat
- A flushed, and sometimes blotchy appearance of the skin
- Shivering as the hot flash subsides
Hot flashes in menopause can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Some have to deal with these heat waves a few times a week, others a lot more often.
It is particularly unpleasant that the hot flashes also occur at night. Night sweats affect the quality of sleep and can cause stress, fatigue, and a feeling of utter exhaustion.
Hot flashes can cause you to wake up bathed in sweat at night and have to change your bedding and nightwear, making a good night’s sleep nearly impossible.
Hot flashes can also be a source of embarrassment when they occur at the office or in social situations when you start sweating profusely.
Ethnicity Can Affect Hot Flash Symptoms
Interestingly, here are differences in symptoms, depending on ethnicity. Asian and Hispanic women report these symptoms less frequently than Caucasian women, while African American and Native American women report experiencing more.
Overall, about 55% of women experience hot flashes at some time during perimenopause and menopause. Here’s the breakdown by ethnicity:
- Chinese: 18%
- East Indian: 25%
- Japanese: 26%
- Hispanic: 26%
- Filipino: 31%
- Caucasian: 58%
- African American: 61%
- Native American: 67%
Not All Hot Flashes Are Created Equal
The recent study observed more than 1,400 women over the course of 16 years. It was found that, on average, menopausal women have to deal with hot flash symptoms for 7.4 years.
The study also found that women after menopause continued to suffer from the symptoms for an average of 4.5 years.
Scientists are in general agreement that hot flashes are caused when a woman’s estrogen levels dip, but that said, there are so many different outcomes, it’s almost impossible to list them all.
Some women will experience 3 or 4 hot flashes per day. For others, it will be every hour. It is extremely variable and their impact on daily life will obviously be different.
More than 50 percent of women suffer from hot flashes even before the onset of perimenopause. When they reach their last menstrual period — menopause — they usually accumulate and intensify.
Women who experience the first hot flashes during menstruation also have symptoms for a longer period – almost twelve years.
Some women never report symptoms of hot flashes and night sweats. I’d like to join this exclusive club!
If, on the other hand, a woman doesn’t experience hot flashes until postmenopause (i.e. after the last menstrual period), the average duration is “only” three to four years.
Unfortunately, hot flashes can persist long after a woman hits menopause. It’s not uncommon for hot flashes to occur for many years after a woman has her last period.
What Triggers Hot Flashes?
The causes of hot flashes are mainly hormonal, but there are a few other lifestyle issues that can cause hot flashes.
Perimenopause & Menopause
Hot flashes are caused in large part by perimenopause and menopause, in which a woman’s body goes through major hormonal changes. This period usually occurs in women between 45 and 55 years old.
Estrogen drops during this phase of life and this drop directly affects the onset of hot flashes and night sweats.
70% of women are familiar with this phenomenon which lasts on average 2 years and impacts their lives to varying degrees.
Hormonal variations during pregnancy can also lead to the appearance of hot flashes, mainly during the first two trimesters.
A complete hysterectomy (including the removal of the ovaries) causes the same hormonal changes as menopause and can, therefore, result in hot flashes.
Even if the ovaries are left intact, the levels of estrogen in the body can still be affected.
Without regular periods, it can be difficult to determine if you’re really going through menopause. The first clear signs can be typical menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats.
Hot flashes can occur when a woman is pregnant. Hot flashes in (early) pregnancy — especially in the first and second trimester — and during breastfeeding are not uncommon. The metabolism runs faster, the vessels are dilated and the blood flow accelerates. The body generates more heat and expands the capillaries.
Sleeping in a bedroom that’s too hot can be disruptive to good sleep. If you’re waking up hot and sweaty, try opening a window, removing a few blankets or sleeping with fewer clothes on.
If you’re always under a lot of stress, you may be more susceptible to hot flashes. Under the effect of stress and anxiety, the over activation of the adrenals causes the secretion of cortisol which will activate the cardiovascular system and promote the appearance of hot flashes.
Spicy Foods, Caffeine & Alcohol
Spicy food, stimulants, and alcohol and coffee can cause an increase in body temperature and sweating by activating the sweat glands. This is called “taste sweating.”
In some people, foods containing MSG (often found in Asian cuisine) can also promote hot flashes.
Studies have shown there is a link between women with a history of smoking and hot flashes. Another reason to kick the habit if you’re a smoker.
High Sugar Diet
If you’re eating a diet high in sugar, you’ll have more rapid and drastic swings in blood sugar, which can cause an increase in hot flashes.
Can Hot Flashes Be Caused By Something Other Than Menopause?
Along with the normal hormonal swings and stages that women experience, there are several other factors that might be contributing to your hot flashes. It’s always a good idea to see a medical professional if you feel your hot flashes are out of control, or happening in the “wrong” phase of life.
Depression & Anxiety
There is a link between women who suffer from depression or anxiety and the occurrence of hot flashes. But it may be a chicken and egg situation…it’s hard to tell if one is caused by the other and visa-versa.
Hot flashes and flushing can be the side effects of many drugs. Make sure to tell your doctor about all medication, both prescriptions and over the counter meds you currently take.
If you’re on hormonal contraceptives, you may find that you experience many of the same symptoms a menopausal woman feels, like spotting, hot flashes, and mood swings.
A higher body mass index (BMI) has been associated with more frequent hot flashes. Obese women may more severe hot flashes, especially before menopause. There is an enhanced importance of keeping an eye on weight during menopause.
Hot flashes can also be caused by an overactive thyroid. Luckily, a simple blood test can be performed to determine if this is an issue.
Hot flashes, sweats, or tremors can be an indicator that blood sugar levels are out of whack.
How to Relieve Hot Flashes & Night Sweats
Whether you’re open to taking estrogen or prefer more alternative treatments, there are many ways to help lessen the effects of hot flashes. Always discuss your options with a medical professional before adding any supplements or drugs to your routine.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
In the case of very severe symptoms, taking hormones may be an option for you. Always discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor in detail.
Antidepressants & Other Prescription Medicines
Several types of antidepressants have been used to treat hot flashes. There are also multiple options for “off-label” drugs to treat hot flashes. Ask your doctor about the best option for you.
Add plant estrogens in your diet. Examples are soy, rhubarb root, red clover, wheat germ, hops or flaxseed.
Try black cohosh, red clover, ginseng, sage, lavender, and evening primrose oil.
Lifestyle Changes To Relieve Hot Flashes
Acupuncture has been shown to have a significant impact on reducing hot flashes.
Wear Light Loose Clothing
Choose breathable loose clothing made from natural materials (cotton, linen) or modern microfiber. These substances allow the air to circulate better and the heat does not accumulate. Avoid using plastics in your clothing if possible — you will sweat even more.
Dress in loose layers so if a hot flash strikes, you can peel off a layer to stay cool.
Sleep in A Cool Room
It’s best to wear airy clothes at night. Do not choose duvets that are too thick. Keep the thermostat set at a lower temperature and sleep with the window open.
Stay Away from Spices
Spicy food and hot drinks make hot flashes worse.
Strike a Balance
Rethink your intake of alcohol, coffee, and nicotine. All of these can make hot flashes worse.
Relaxation can help with hot flashes. Learn a relaxation method such as yoga or meditation. Try paced breathing next time you have a hot flash.
Exercise and keeping a healthy weight can help you keep extreme hot flashes at bay.
The Takeaway: There Are Many Triggers for Hot Flashes
There are many triggers that can cause hot flashes and these can vary widely for each woman. No one knows your body better than you. Listen to your body and avoid those things that tend to “burn you up!”
Several simple solutions exist to relieve hot flashes. Regular exercise, keeping a healthy BMI, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods if they are triggers for you can help you lessen the effects of hot flashes and night sweats.
Some treatments may be prescribed by a doctor in case of hot flashes due to hormonal imbalance. Natural remedies like acupuncture, herbal medicine or meditation can also be helpful in the fight against hot flashes.