Menopause 101: What is a Hot Flash?

As a menopausal specialist, I am often asked this question by women coming to my office wondering what is happening to their bodies.  First, let me reassure you that hot flashes are very common. Approximately, 4 out of 5 women will experience hot flashes during perimenopause/ menopause transition with the average duration of symptoms lasting more than 7 years.  In 10-15% of women, these hot flashes can last longer than a decade and even their whole lifetime.  Therefore, it’s very important that we understand what hot flashes are, what causes them and how to treat them.

What are hot flashes? 

Hot flashes are a normal physiological reaction to the fluctuating hormone levels that occur during perimenopause and menopause.  During a hot flash, a woman may feel a sudden warm sensation that can last 30 seconds to 10 minutes in duration.  Her face, neck, chest and arms may become flushed due to the blood vessel dilation in her skin, which is the body’s way of releasing heat.

What causes hot flashes?

Let me clarify this a bit more.  Our bodies have a thermoregulatory center, like a thermostat, in our brain located in the hypothalamus.  With perimenopause there are fluctuating hormone levels which cause a decrease in estrogen and progesterone.  When our internal thermostat is exposed to these changes it tells our bodies that we are too hot and need to release heat.  During this time, epinephrine from our adrenal glands is also released, which can cause heart palpitations, a faster heart rate and a sense of anxiety.

Due to the blood vessel dilation, also known as vasodilation, our bodies are cooled by sweating.  For many women at night, these can then lead to a cold feeling and shivers.  Hot flashes, which occur at night, are also known as night sweats.  Many women experience this and they need to throw the covers on and off while sleeping and even need to change their bed sheets due to drenching of the sheets.

What are natural ways to manage hot flashes? Hot flashes can also occur during the daytime and can vary among individuals, with some women complaining about them every 30 minutes to 1 hour during the day while other women may experience a hot flash once a week. 

Certain lifestyle changes can definitely decrease the frequency and severity of hot flashes.  Here are some tips.

  • Limit the amount of alcohol, spicy foods and caffeine – all of these can increase hot flashes.
  • Dress in layers with breathable material – this makes it easier to remove clothing and release heat.
  • Lessen your stress level by practicing mindfulness, meditation and yoga.
  • Place a frozen bag of peas underneath your pillow and flip your pillow over during the night.

Many effective medical therapies are also available to help manage hot flashes, these include certain medications as well as hormone therapy.  The decision to start a certain therapy is best addressed with your physician to determine the best type and route of administration for you. 

If you are suffering from hot flashes, there is help to deal with the heat.  Please share this with your friends and family members who might also need this useful information. 

Here’s to living your best (and most AMAZING) life at 40, 50 and beyond!

In health and happiness, 

 Dr. Diana