The first time it happened was in the middle of the night. Camille awoke with a sense of dread, feeling like she was on fire. She threw off the blanket and stripped off her t-shirt, which was already drenched with sweat. As she began to shiver, a realization dawned: this is what a hot flash feels like.
Perhaps the most recognizable sign of impending menopause, the first hot flash often serves as a wake-up call, a signal that change is coming. A feeling of extreme heat on the head, neck, chest, and upper back that lasts 1-5 minutes, a hot flash is often accompanied by perspiration and a red flush. Some women are prepared for menopause, but the uncertainty of when it will start and how intense each individual’s symptoms will be means many women are still taken by surprise.
Though menopause is a normal, expected stage in a woman’s life, it can present a range of disruptive symptoms that interfere with your quality of life. This includes mood swings, headaches, weight gain, and sleep disruptions—all of which may be exacerbated by hot flashes. But knowing what to expect and how to reduce menopause symptoms can give you an edge when they occur. Healthy habits can help you deal proactively with hot flashes, making this expected transition more manageable.
Vasomotor Symptoms Explained
Hot flashes, night sweats, flushing, and palpitations are all examples of vasomotor symptoms, which result from the dilation or constriction of blood vessels. One of the hallmarks of declining hormones, these symptoms occur when the temperature-regulation center of the brain directs the nervous system to dilate (open) to release heat. Once a hot flash causes sweating and dissipation of heat, blood vessels constrict (narrow) causing chills as the body tries to compensate for the loss of heat and bring the temperature back up to normal.
Hot flashes occur quite commonly in the years leading up to menopause; more than 80% of women will experience them at some point. They may occur occasionally, a few times a week, or in rare cases, multiple times per hour. Though each woman is different, these uncomfortable flashes will typically last six months to two years, and, in some women, as much as ten years. And while disruptive and uncomfortable enough on their own, the effects of hot flashes can intensify sleep disruptions, mood changes, and weight gain.
Top Healthy Habits to Reduce Hot Flashes
It is not possible to anticipate and avoid all menopause symptoms, but there are healthy habits that may improve your days and nights. Preventing the conditions that bring on uncomfortable hot flashes and knowing what to do to assuage them can help you to weather this time more comfortably.
1. Keep it cool
Research suggests that small temperature elevations may set off a hot flash. For this reason, being deliberate about keeping yourself cool makes a lot of sense. This might include turning your thermostat down a couple of degrees, dressing in removable layers, and running the pulse points on your wrists under cold water when you begin to feel warm. Avoiding situations where you might overheat can help you prevent hot flashes before they start.
2. Optimize nighttime comfort
Preventing night sweats hinges on planning for cooler nights. Start with your thermostat setting, dialing down a few degrees before heading off to bed. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends a range of 60-67 degrees for optimal nighttime comfort.
Next, look at your bedding. Sheets and pillowcases made of natural, cooling materials like cotton, linen, or bamboo will help to wick away moisture, regulate temperature and keep you cooler all night long. Wearing loose, lightweight, breathable sleepwear and opting for a sheet or light blanket instead of a duvet or quilt can also help dissipate body heat for more comfortable sleep.
3. Avoid hot flash triggers
Certain behaviors may become triggers for uncomfortable hot flashes. These include spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol. Smoking, obesity, and stress may also exacerbate vasomotor symptoms. Making lifestyle changes to avoid these triggers is a proactive approach.
4. Choose plant-based foods
While declining levels of estrogen are the cause of many discomforts, foods containing phytoestrogens can help to reduce menopause symptoms. These compounds derived from plants may mimic and enhance the effects of your own estrogens. Soybeans, chickpeas, and lentils have mild estrogenic activity and may help to alleviate hot flashes and other symptoms. In a survey of perimenopausal and menopausal women, perimenopausal women consuming a vegan diet reported “less bothersome vasomotor and physical menopausal symptoms” than the omnivore participants.
5. Opt for cooling foods and beverages
According to practitioners of Chinese medicine, certain foods and beverages have a cooling effect. These include:
Fruits like strawberries, banana, and watermelon
Raw foods (including vegetables)
Leafy greens like lettuce and kale
Bitter herbs, including mustard greens, chicory, and dandelion leaves
And, of course, plenty of cooling beverages like iced water, green tea, and mint water will keep you hydrated and refreshed.
6. Supplement with phytoestrogens
In addition to foods naturally rich in phytoestrogens, supplementation may also help you reduce menopause symptoms like hot flashes. In a 2021 study, researchers found that perimenopausal and menopausal women treated with a cereal bar fortified with phytoestrogens soy and flaxseed experienced better symptom control than those receiving a placebo bar. Reductions were seen in hot flashes, numbness/tingling, insomnia, sexual and depressive symptoms.
Supplementation with other compounds that have estrogenic effects may have similar benefits. A 2020 study demonstrated that a combination of curcumin and vitamin E “significantly improved hot flashes in postmenopausal women,” although it did not other menopausal symptoms. Other plant-based therapies that may potentially reduce menopause symptoms include black cohosh and red clover.
Before trying any supplement, you should consult your healthcare provider.
7. Practice meditation and relaxation breathing
Learning relaxation techniques can have a positive effect on a variety of menopause symptoms. Mindfulness meditation and relaxation training are known to reduce vasomotor symptoms and improve sleep quality in women with postmenopausal insomnia. Additionally, relaxation techniques combined with antihypertensive medication have been found to reduce blood pressure in postmenopausal women significantly better than medication alone.
8. Try acupuncture, hypnosis, and cognitive behavioral therapy
Women often seek out complementary and alternative therapies to treat menopause symptoms. Acupuncture has yielded mixed results in clinical studies, but hypnosis has consistently proven successful in reducing hot flashes. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to reduce vasomotor and depressive symptoms, sleep difficulties, and sexual concerns in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women—and the effects may persist long after treatment.
When Healthy Habits Are Not Enough to Reduce Menopause Symptoms
For many women, healthy habits can go a long way to reduce menopause symptoms. But when hot flashes are interfering with your physical and emotional well-being despite your attempts at lifestyle changes, it may be time to consider bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT). This tried and true method of treatment can help reduce or eliminate menopause symptoms by restoring healthy hormone levels and can be tailored to your body’s unique needs.
If you are still experiencing uncomfortable hot flashes despite your best efforts, reach out for expert advice. A hormone specialist can help you determine if BHRT is a good option and design a customized plan to help you achieve your treatment goals. With their support, you can make this natural transition as comfortable as possible.
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