If you’ve ever had one, you’ll know the symptoms only too well. A hot flush or ‘hot flash’ is a sudden, intense feeling of heat that strikes without warning and rapidly spreads over the face and upper body. The sensation is often accompanied by uncontrollable sweating, a rapid heartbeat, nausea, dizziness and feelings of anxiety. Each flush can last up to an hour, leaving you breathless, red-faced and perspiring.
What causes hot flushes?
Hot flushes are most commonly caused by the hormonal fluctuations of menopause, but they can also be brought on by lifestyle and certain types of medication. It is thought that declining levels of estrogen during menopause have a significant effect on the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls body temperature. For reasons that are still unclear, diminished levels of estrogen appear to confuse the hypothalamus – which is sometimes thought of as the human body’s own “thermostat”- and cause it to go into overdrive.
During a hot flush episode, the brain sends an urgent message to the nervous system, heart and blood vessels to release heat as quickly as possible. Your body responds instantly: your heart beat rapidly increases, your sweat glands are activated and the blood vessels under the surface of your skin dilate, causing that dreaded rush of heat and redness to the face.
This in-built cooling down mechanism is essential for your health and comfort during the hot summer months, but when it is triggered by fluctuating hormone levels during menopause, your brain’s confused messages can leave you feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed and miserable.
Preventing hot flushes – The limits of prescription drugs
Although some women turn to Hormone Replacement Therapy to ward off hot flushes and other uncomfortable menopausal symptoms, the medication has been linked with an increased risk of breast cancer, heart problems and stroke, and health professionals are increasingly reluctant to prescribe it to women confronted with the natural, if unpleasant symptoms of menopause.
Recent research has also brought into debate the use of antidepressants to ease hot flushes. In fact Lexapro, a brand prescribed specifically to menopausal women prone to flushes, failed to show any real efficacy under clinical trial.
The value of taking prescription medication to prevent hot flushes may be in disrepute, but that doesn’t mean you should fall victim to your own raging hormones. There are plenty of natural and effective measures you can take to make hot flushes more manageable and even stop the spread of heat in its tracks.
Beat hot flushes naturally
Taking slow, deep breaths can help shorten hot flush episodes and relieve their intensity. As soon as you feel a flush approaching, take a breath as deep as you can, hold on to it for a few moments and release it slowly. Breathing like this can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you stay cool and calm during times of anxiety.
Pay close attention to the triggers that set off your hot flushes. During menopause your internal thermostat is in turmoil, so anything that increases your body temperature even a few degrees can be problematic. Many women find that spicy food, alcohol and even hot drinks like tea and coffee can bring on a flush, as can hot baths, showers and saunas. You don’t have to avoid these things forever, but lay off them for now until your hormones have leveled out.
Dieticians have long advocated drinking plenty of water throughout the day, but if you are experiencing hot flushes, it is absolutely vital that you drink up. Staying well hydrated will help your body’s cooling-off system to operate more efficiently, which will prevent you from overheating and help you cool down after a hot flush episode.