The fear of breaking into a clothes-drenching sweat during business meetings or social events can lead to anxiety and even depression.
When hot flashes degrade the quality of your sleep or prevent you from being fully functional during the day, you need to take action.
What’s Happening When You Have a Hot Flash?
Hot flashes are connected to changes in your estrogen levels, though the specific cause and effect relationship is still under study. Though flagging levels of estrogen may set the stage for hot flashes, the actual hot flashes are the result of a sudden resetting of the body’s thermostat. If your brain senses that your body is too hot—for any reason, including low estrogen, increased blood flow to the brain, a high ambient temperature, or even the ingestion of hot, spicy foods—it sends out a signal that your body needs to cool off. In response, your pituitary gland sends out luteinizing hormone (LH), which causes the blood vessels near your skin’s surface to dilate to release heat through your skin. This heat-releasing action makes your skin temperature (and your body temperature) rise, followed by an increase in perspiration. The perspiration helps to cool the skin, which can result in a clammy feeling. If you’ve perspired heavily, you may be left damp and even chilly. Your body temperature drops and your blood vessels constrict. If you are damp and cold, you may begin to shiver. That’s the hot flash in action.
Common Hot Flash Triggers
As mentioned, hot flashes are signals that your body may be suffering fluctuating levels of estrogen or that your estrogen levels have declined dramatically. But other factors can cause hot flashes or contribute to their severity. Many women find, for example, that they have hot flashes during periods of anxiety and nervousness; other studies have found that some prescription antihypertensive and antianxiety medications may also cause hot flashes. As mentioned earlier, hot flashes may indicate that your body is reacting to certain foods or beverages or even the temperature of the air around you—some women report their hot flashes are more severe and last longer when they occur during hot weather or in a hot room.
How Many, How Bad, How Long?
Although many women don’t seem to notice hot flashes until after menopause has occurred, many others begin having them during perimenopause, with forty-eight being an average age for the onset of hot flashes.
A number of studies have been conducted on the prevalence, frequency, and intensity of hot flashes in perimenopausal and menopausal women. In general, women who experience hot flashes start having them within at least one year before menopause, and continue having them for one to six years.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’s publication "Managing Menopause" lists the findings of one study, in which 501 women were asked about the frequency and severity of their hot flashes. Of those participating in the study, 87 percent reported having one or more flashes per day; of those experiencing multiple daily hot flashes, the numbers of incidents per day ranged from five to fifty, with one-third of the women reporting more than ten. Another study reported a lower frequency of hot flashes—participants had an average of only three or four flashes a day. That study also showed that, on average, hot flashes lasted about three and one-half minutes, though some can come and go in no more than five seconds. And in nearly every study, almost three-fourths of the respondents said their hot flashes were mild, moderate, or only variably intense.
Techniques for Turning Down the Heat
A number of treatment options to help you alleviate—or even eliminate-hot flashes caused by the onset of menopause are discussed later in this website. But you have a variety of first-defense techniques available to you that don’t require any special medication or therapeutic program. Try these simple techniques to avoid hot flashes or minimize their severity:
- Avoid triggering foods and drinks. Spicy foods—foods heavy in capsaicin, the heat-inducing chemical in cayenne and other hot peppers - can contribute to hot flashes. Caffeine and alcohol are also common triggers, so you should avoid caffeinated beverages, excessive amounts of chocolate, and alcoholic beverages if you are suffering from hot flashes.
- Drink plenty of water during the day—at least thirty-two ounces, more if possible. Keep a glass of ice water with you during meetings and conferences and set a thermal-lined drink container of ice water on your nightstand, ready to help cool down raging hot flashes.
- Get at least thirty minutes of exercise every day. Regular exercise is an integral part of any healthy lifestyle, but it might offer specific relief from vasomotor symptoms. Exercise, including stretching, aerobic, and weight-bearing activities, has been shown to cut down on the frequency of hot flashes, and may even help limit the length and severity of hot flashes that occur. Regular exercise also promotes a general feeling of well-being that can help reduce anxiety and stress that can contribute to hot flashes.
- Wear layers of moisture-absorbing clothing. When a hot flash strikes, you can take off one or more layers of clothing to help cool your skin temperature quickly. Cotton fabrics are particularly helpful in allowing adequate air to reach the skin, and they’re good at absorbing perspiration. Cotton wicks moisture away from the skin and into the air, so both you and your clothing can dry more quickly.