If you’re suffering through hot flashes, you may be sweating it (literally!). The sudden spike of internal heat and blood flow can wreck your mood; turn your chest, neck, and face tomato-red; and take your heart for a wild ride. Most episodes average four minutes, but it’s possible to suffer for as long as an hour. No matter the length, one thing’s for certain: hot flashes can make it hard to keep your cool. Here’s why they occur and a few tips to help.
The hormone imbalance that causes flashes
The hormones responsible for hot flashes are estrogen and progesterone. When levels dramatically change or swing wildly, it’s harder for your body to regulate its temperature. The blood vessels under your skin dilate to release heat, causing a flush of warmth and redness.
Hot flashes are often a part of menopause but can happen earlier, in perimenopause. Menopause usually occurs between the ages of 40 and 50 and is diagnosed after 12 months without a menstrual cycle, provided there’s no other health-related cause. The period of time leading up to menopause, when women begin noticing marked shifts in menstrual regularity, is called perimenopause.
How to reduce hot flashes and cool down
Because perimenopause and menopause are a natural part of aging, it may not be possible to entirely avoid or eliminate hot flashes. But there are a few things you can do to minimize how often you have them and how long they last.
Keep cold water ready
Rather than heading to the restroom to splash your face (and mess up your makeup), reach for cold water next time you feel a hot flash coming on. Take a few gulps; then, cool down even more quickly by dabbing a little on your body’s pulse points. Some easy spots you can discreetly do anywhere are the inside of your wrists or just in front of your ears.
Even when you’re not having an episode, focus on staying hydrated to replenish fluid lost from hot-flash-related sweating. Another perk of getting in eight glasses a day? Research shows women who consistently drink enough water have fewer hot flashes overall.
Pour a (half) cup of licorice root tea
Licorice root can have a slight estrogen-like effect. Drinking a little each day may help minimize how often you feel a hot flash coming on. Keep it to a half cup max, or one ounce of root boiled in water daily. And don’t make it a habit longer than two to four weeks.
Even though it seems like it’s just tea, you definitely want to double-check with your provider first on this one. Licorice has drawbacks. It interferes with some treatments, like blood pressure meds. Plus, it makes it harder for your body to break down a hormone called cortisol, so your doctor may want to check your levels first or monitor them. One tip? Hot beverages can bring on a hot flash, so let your tea cool to room temp before sipping.
Journal to find your triggers
What sets off your hot flashes may be different from your friends’ triggers. According to the Cleveland Clinic, alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, exercising in the heat, and wearing restrictive clothing are all things to keep an eye on.
To find your triggers, take notes for about two months. Put the journal in an easy-to-reach place, like in your purse or by the bed. Jot down the day, time, and length of each hot flash and include what (and when) you ate, your outfit, and any time you exercised, had coffee, or popped open a bottle of wine. Over time, you’ll see correlations between your hot flashes and certain foods or habits. Then, you can minimize or avoid those triggers.
Take time for yourself
Reducing stress can alleviate the frequency and severity of hot flashes. In fact, women prone to anxiety report having more hot flashes than those who feel content and calm.
Schedule time in your day for self-care, whether that’s chatting with a group of friends or family, booking a massage, going for a walk, reading, or trying yoga. Another stress-busting habit is deep breathing or other breath work. Studies have shown it’s effective when dealing with nervousness and physical discomfort.
Ask your doc about herbs, like black cohosh
Black cohosh’s phytochemicals (chemicals found in plants) can have powerful effects. This medicinal root has long been used by some cultures for a wide-range of problems and complaints. Germany has even labeled it as an alternative for hormone replacement therapy because of the relief it can provide with hot flashes and other menopause symptoms. In the United States, black cohosh is available without a script.
But just because black cohosh can be found over the counter doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. There are a variety of preparations, and you’ll want to chat with your doctor about what’s right for you and if (or how long) you can take it. Most side effects are temporary, but it can cause tummy upset in some people. And, rarely, liver issues.
Give your diet a mini-overhaul
What you eat won’t erase hot flashes or make them a distant memory. But it can help. In fact, a study in Japan looked at more than 1,000 pre-menopausal women and followed them over six years. What they found was: women with higher intakes of soy had far fewer hot flashes than those who avoided it. One reason for that outcome? Soy is a phytoestrogen and can have a slight estrogenic effect, which may help declining or erratic levels.
Avoiding or limiting coffee and other caffeinated products can reduce hot flashes, too. Caffeine causes a vasomotor reaction, meaning it temporarily narrows your blood vessels and may make you more prone to the over-dilation response in hot flashes.
What else can you do for hot flashes?
Sometimes just knowing which hormones cause hot flashes can help you feel better when one starts. But, if you’re feeling like hot flashes are too frequent or taking over, talk to your doctor. You might get some relief from estrogen replacement therapy.