How Your Brain Can Short-Circuit a Hot Flash

Daily Health Solutions, Featured Article, Healthy Living, Menopause, Women's Health
on July 10, 2013
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Hot flashes and night sweats—doctors call them vasomotor symptoms—plague many women as they enter menopause. In some, symptoms are bad enough to cause anxiety and depression, disrupt sleep and make it tough to function. These sweaty sessions plague women for an average of five to eight years, with 10 percent of women suffering for as long as 12 years. While hormone replacement therapy is the best way to stop the burn, it has risks. Want to cool down naturally? Try these options. Keep in mind: Not every strategy will help every woman, but give them a shot.

RELATED: How to Stop Hot Flashes

Control your environment. “Getting too warm definitely triggers hot flashes,” says Dr. Margery Gass, executive director of The North American Menopause Society.

So avoid bright lights and sitting by a sunny window, for one. Don’t use down comforters, and circulate the air around you with an oscillating fan (even in the winter). Layering clothing so you can remove pieces as you heat up helps, too.

Sweat it off. Go figure: While overheating can spark hot flashes, exercise does seem to keep them at bay. “We encourage women in menopause to exercise regularly, and we find a lot of them get significant benefits, ” says Dr. Lynne T. Shuster, director of the Office of Women’s Health at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn. A study published in the journal Menopause found that women with mild to moderate symptoms who did 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on a treadmill reported fewer hot flashes during the 24 hours post-workout. Women who were overweight, were less fit or had more frequent or intense hot flashes benefited the least. Still, regular exercise confers so many benefits it’s worth doing.

Pace your breathing. Paced breathing, which emphasizes slow, deep breaths, reduces the severity and frequency of hot flashes. Mayo Clinic researchers had one group of women take six breaths per minute for 15 minutes once a day, inhaling through their nose and letting their stomach rise and exhaling through their mouth, while their tummies flattened. A second group did this paced breathing exercise twice a day, and a third group practiced normal breathing—taking 14 breaths per minute for 10 minutes a day. During the nine-week study, all the women said their hot flashes had been reduced. But women who practiced paced breathing twice a day had the biggest benefit: Their hot flashes were eased by 52 percent compared to a 42 percent reduction in women who did paced breathing once a day and a 46 percent reduction in women who breathed as usual. “Paced breathing helps calm the body’s blood pressure and pulse response,” says Shuster. That may make the body “less reactive,” thus preventing hot flashes.

Talk it out. British researchers have found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), whether it’s delivered in a group setting or via self-help—can reduce hot flashes and night sweats, probably by easing stress, improving mood and teaching women strategies to manage their symptoms. In their study, 65 percent of a group of women who attended weekly two-hour sessions including stress management techniques, paced breathing instruction and goal setting reported a significant improvement in their symptoms after six weeks compared to 21 percent of those in a control group. Women assigned to a self-help group who received a self-help book and two contacts with a psychologist saw a 73 percent improvement. Those improvements persisted at 26 weeks. Women in the group sessions saw a 53 percent drop in night sweat frequency as did 43 percent of women in the self-help group. The frequency of hot flashes dropped 36 to 40 percent in the treatment arms and 23 percent in the control group.

Try hypnosis. Researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, found that by helping women relax, hypnosis reduced hot flashes, lessened anxiety and depression and improved quality of life. During five 45-minute sessions, women in the clinical hypnosis group were given suggestions for mental imagery, such as imagining a cool mountain creek, and were trained in relaxation techniques. Each woman also received an audio recording to help her practice self-hypnosis at home every day. In a structured-attention group, women met with a clinician who discussed their symptoms, listened to them and offered encouragement. All the women recorded the frequency and severity of their hot flashes. In addition, the women wore skin monitors with electrodes that recorded physiological changes such as temperature that occurred during a hot flash.  By the 12th week, women in the hypnosis group reported a 74 percent reduction in their hot flashes compared to a 17 percent drop for controls.

Meditate. Women who practiced mindfulness meditation for nine weeks decreased the frequency of their bothersome hot flashes and night sweats by an average of nearly 15 percent versus seven percent for women in a wait-list control group, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. After the study ended, women continued to improve. By 20 weeks, women had decreased their bothersome hot flashes and night sweats by 22 percent compared to 11 percent for those in the control group. What’s more, the women who meditated had significant improvements in their quality of life, sleep, anxiety and stress levels, explains study author Dr. James Carmody, associate professor of medicine. Mindfulness meditation helps people recognize how they respond to situations and “redirect their attention to something neutral, usually the sensations of breathing, which is helpful,” says Carmody. Women learned mindfulness meditation during eight weekly 2 1/2 hour classes plus an all-day class. They also received a CD to guide them through home practice for 45 minutes six days a week. It’s not yet known how often a woman would have to meditate to continue to reap the benefits.

Low-fat diet. What you eat may reduce hot flashes and night sweats, according to a study of 17,473 women ages 50 to 79. One group followed a low-fat diet, getting 20 percent of their total calories from fat (the government recommends getting no more than 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat). They also ate five servings of fruits and vegetables and six servings of whole grains per day, and met with nutritionists and dietitians who helped them achieve their dietary goals. Another group received information on eating healthfully but had no contact with an expert. During the first year, women in the low-fat diet group were 14 percent more likely to see their symptoms disappear than were women in the control group. They were also three times more likely to have lost weight. Women who lost 10 or more pounds or 10 percent of their baseline body weight were much more likely to see their symptoms ease than were women who maintained their weight. But even women in the low-fat group who gained weight saw their symptoms lessen or disappear. “I have cared for women who made the decision to commit to a healthy diet and have absolutely seen hot flashes reduce in intensity or go away,” says Shuster.