- Women's Health
Menopause Symptoms: Relieving Hot Flashes Naturally
Menopause marks a time in a woman's life where her strengths and focus begin to shift. Throughout her twenties, thirties and into her forties, a woman's primary concerns are finding a mate, childbearing and raising a family, and/or pursuing an education and building a career to secure the future.
As she approaches mid-life these concerns become less urgent, and many find a period of self-discovery unlike anything they have previously experienced. Women in their forties and fifties are going back to school for a long-delayed degree or pursuing creative interests. There is wisdom, and a sense of empowerment.
But for many women the physical symptoms of menopause can make this stage of life anywhere from mildly uncomfortable to downright unbearable. Hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, hair loss, decreased sex drive, skin and vaginal dryness are some of the symptoms experienced.
The most common symptom seems to be the hot flash. The majority of women who do experience hot flashes have them for 2 years or less, while a small percentage have them for more than 5 years. For some women, hot flashes can begin several years before other symptoms of menopause.
What is a hot flash?
Many years ago the hot flash was thought to be psychosomatic, the emotional reaction of a woman facing mid-life. But it is now known to be a very real physiological event.
What is it like? Most women will experience it as an increasingly intense sensation of heat that begins in the abdomen or chest, rising to the upper body, neck and head, often followed by a sudden outbreak of sweating, and sometimes accompanied by increased heart rate, thirst, irritability, anxiety, or even nausea. Sounds like fun, right? This may occur a couple of times a week, or for some unlucky women many times during the day and at night. For some it is merely a mild annoyance, but for others hot flashes can be so severe as to disrupt everyday life.
The exact cause of the hot flash isn't known, but medical experts think that the body’s thermostat, the hypothalamus, is involved. This is an area at the base of the brain which is responsible for maintaining the “balance” within the body known as homeostasis. Functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, digestion and other basic processes are controlled by the actions of the hypothalamus. It also regulates body temperature. It is thought that the natural reduction of estrogen as a woman ages triggers the secretion of a hormone call luteinizing hormone, which tricks the hypothalamus into thinking the body is overheated. In response to this the body quickly attempts to cool itself down, thus the intense release of heat known as a hot flash.
Natural treatment that works
Until recently hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, was the treatment of choice for hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. But in recent years studies have linked some kinds of HRT therapy to an increased cancer risk, especially breast cancer. So what are the alternatives?
First, know that there are things that can trigger hot flashes. Spicy foods, alcohol, not drinking enough water (dehydration), smoking, hot drinks and caffeine are all common triggers. Other triggers include humidity, hot showers, being in a warm or stuffy room, wearing synthetic or wool fabrics, fatigue, and emotions such as anger, irritability and stress. Identifying and avoiding your triggers whenever possible is the first step to reducing hot flashes.
Then take it one step further and try to integrate some relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises or yoga into your everyday schedule. This is key to controlling your hot flashes. Stress, negative thoughts and anger are powerful triggers.
Try the following exercise when you begin to feel a hot flash coming on:
Close your eyes and take a deep slow breath in, and release slowly, keeping your focus on your breath. After a few deep cleansing breaths like this, bring your attention to your physical self and what you are feeling. If your heart is racing, focus on that until it begins to slow. Continue to breathe calmly. Focus on the sensation of heat until it begins to dissipate. Shifting your attention in this way will probably not stop the episode, but can greatly reduce the intensity and duration. It will also help you to relax and will lessen your anxiety.
There are a number of natural remedies to treat many of the symptoms of menopause. For hot flashes specifically, black cohosh, dang quai, licorice root, red clover, and chasteberry (also known as vitex), wild yam, and evening primrose oil have all been found to be helpful. Black cohosh has been the most studied herb for controlling hot flashes, and although results vary, many women have found relief. For the best results, consult with an experienced herbalist.
Caffeine is a trigger for many women, and quitting or cutting down consumption of caffeinated beverages can help. Try teas like chamomile, peppermint, passion flower and lemon balm which are soothing and calming. Sipping these throughout the day will hydrate you and help you sleep better. Chrysanthemum flowers make a wonderfully cooling herbal tea. This flower is used in Chinese medicine to clear excess heat from the body. To make the tea, steep the dried flowers (about one teaspoon of flowers to 10 oz. of water) in hot water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink cool or at room temperature.
Many women have also found significant relief from hot flashes with acupuncture and Chinese medicine. By inserting thin needles into specific points on the body, acupuncture helps to balance the body and promote healing. It does this by stimulating the nervous system to release chemicals that influence the body’s own natural healing abilities. Acupuncture has a long history of treating women’s health issues.