When you and your junior high friends swapped stories about menstrual cramps, you probably found that no two of you had the exact same experience.
It’s no different with menopause hot flashes, which can range from mildly annoying to debilitating—no matter what anyone else tries to tell you. If you have not had them, you don’t know. You need to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Hormonal therapy still has a place in treatment for some women, and there are a host of other ways to manage hot flashes so they don’t disrupt your life any more than necessary. That’s where the shared wisdom of other women and the latest medical research can help.
Anatomy of a hot flash
An estimated 85 percent of women experience hot flashes during menopause, and for about 15 percent of women it’s a severe experience. The average age for the onset of menopause is 51, but for some women symptoms can begin in the early 40s.
Hot flashes are caused by diminishing levels of estrogen as you approach and go through menopause, which can interfere with your body’s “thermostat” and prompt it to cool the body by releasing heat when you don’t need to. This results in feelings of mild to intense heat in the upper body, rapid heartbeat, flushing, sweating and then chills. It affects ability to work and quality of life.
While it’s hard to predict or prevent hot flashes, you don’t have to suffer unnecessarily. Here are some expert opinions on how to turn down the heat on menopause symptoms, starting with the basics:
* Try to keep cool. It seems obvious, but experts say it works. The more you can avoid getting warm, the more you may avoid the onset of a hot flash. Dressing in layers is the best way to do this, so that you can shed a layer before a flash comes on. In addition, if you do experience a flash, you may feel chilled afterward, and you’ll appreciate having an extra layer to put back on. Keep a fan at your desk at the office; even if you can’t control the overall climate, you can keep your personal space cool.
* Lower your stress level. While stress won’t cause hot flashes, it can make the symptoms worse. Exercise, such as swimming and walking, can help reduce stress levels and hot flash symptoms while keeping you fit. Yoga and meditation are also helpful relaxation tools.
* Don’t smoke. Add this to the long list of reasons to get rid of your cigarettes: Smoking is linked to increased hot flashes.
* Practice behavior modification. Paced respiration/breathing is an increasingly popular treatment, either as a regularly scheduled activity or at the first sign of a hot flash. Doctors warn that the paced breathing technique may require some practice, but patients should not become discouraged. To try it, start in a comfortable sitting position. First, breathe in slowly for five seconds, pushing stomach muscles out. Then breathe out slowly for five seconds, pulling stomach muscles in and up. Repeat the cycle for 15 minutes or for just a minute or two at a time in the middle of a busy day.
* Watch what you eat. Stay away from hot and spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol, because they have all been linked to increased hot flashes.
* Talk to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy. Estrogen therapy is the most effective treatment for hot flashes, but it’s not for everyone. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends hormone therapy with the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time necessary. There are two basic types of hormone replacement: estrogen only, and combination therapy with progesterone. Progesterone must be added to estrogen replacement for anyone who still has her uterus in order to protect against most forms of uterine cancer. The addition of testosterone may improve symptom relief, and enhance libido and sexual enjoyment in some women.
Sometimes the simplest hot flash remedies can be surprisingly effective:
* Get minty fresh. Dabbing a few drops of essence of peppermint oil on the inside of the wrists provides a cooling effect for some women.
* Consider dietary supplements. Black cohosh and vitamin E are thought to decrease hot flashes, although studies have shown they are no more effective than placebos. But some patients have reported reduced symptoms as a result of taking the supplements, so it might be worth discussing with your health care provider. Soy or plant estrogens can have similar effects.