What are Hot Flashes and Night Sweats (12-Minute Read)

A woman fanning herself because she is in menopause and having a hot flash
Connie Pretula Headshot

Connie Pretula

Connie Pretula is an inspiring health coach and Menopause Navigator to mature women, using a holistic approach to nutrition and life.

March 12, 2024

Potentially two of the most common symptoms women experience are hot flashes and night sweats. Even though they are very common symptoms, not all women experience them.

They are caused by the hormone changes that are occurring in a woman’s body which is a natural process during the various stages of menopause. They can also be exacerbated by food, beverages, products a woman uses on her body and in the home, and by stress, more on that later.

Hot flashes, sometimes called hot flushes, are not the type of hot you feel on a summer day or in a warm room or when exercising. Hot flashes can happen any time of the year, regardless of the temperature inside or out.

The first time a woman has a hot flash can be very overwhelming, she may wonder what just happened. The suddenness of a hot flash catches a woman by surprise, one moment she is feeling completely comfortable and then the warmth starts and it continues to intensify to an unbearable level within seconds. The intensity and experience is completely different for every woman and she has no idea when it will happen. For context, I will be sharing how I felt when having hot flashes and night sweats.

During my hot flashes, a warm feeling would start at about the halfway point of my torso. I would feel it start to creep up my torso and continue to the top of my head. Then the rest of my body would start to get warmer to the point of being very uncomfortably hot. I looked in the mirror to see what I actually looked like as they were happening. It was very interesting, I could see how a redness would start to show on my decollate and then gradually move up until my whole face was red. I would sometimes jokingly say, I’m about to look like a human thermometer, the kind with the red dye. My face would be beet red, similar to the flush of embarrassment. 

Then the rest of my body would start feeling the effects of the hot flash, it was like an internal watering system had been turned on. Not only was my face flushed but I had beads of sweat that would not stop and then I could feel them starting to run down my face. My scalp was sweating and it would run down the back of my neck. My underarms would be sweating, even the tops of my hands and legs would sweat.

Imagine being in a meeting dressed in a suit, and presenting to a group of people. I would feel like I was about to melt. At that moment, I wanted to get out of my clothes and stand in front of a fan or air conditioner. I quickly learned to dress in layers and everything needed to be sleeveless. I would calmly remove my suit jacket and hoped that no one asked me if I was okay. During that time in my life, a lovely silk fan that a friend had brought back from China for me, became my most prized possession and fashion accessory and I was not shy to use it.

After a hot flash starts to subside, then the chills set in. The body naturally wants to help cool us off, then I would be putting my jacket back on. The strange thing is, my clothes would feel damp from the hot flash but due to having the chills, I wanted my jacket back on. Now I’m cold in sweaty clothing, not the most comfortable experience, it’s like having a wet bathing suit under your business attire. The cycle of hot flashes and chills could happen a number of times during a day, it would be hard to concentrate and keep my decorum.

For some women, they feel like they cannot get their jacket or sweater off fast enough, it can feel so unbearable because it happens so quickly. Try driving in a car and suddenly getting a hot flash. All I knew was, in that moment, I needed to get my jacket off because I felt like an inferno had suddenly turned on in my body. I would turn on my AC, put the windows down and try to safely remove my jacket without causing an accident, quite the skill when driving on the highway.

When I would be styling my hair and the hot flashes would come on, a hot blow dryer does not help the situation. I would put my blow dryer on the cool setting and it would feel like the hot flash would not stop. Many times I would have to restyle my hair because I was sweating so badly, my hair had completely lost the style.

Once that was done, now apply my makeup, I’d get my foundation on and a hot flash would come again. All of the beads of sweat looked like little bubbles of makeup. I’d grab my silk fan and start fanning myself to cool down, now my hairstyle is falling out again. Once I cooled down, I’d fix up my foundation and apply the rest of my makeup. I knew my eyebrows could sweat, I had no idea that my eyelids could sweat so much.

I’d be mindful of the colour of clothing I would wear and the fabrics because it’s no fun having sweaty spots showing on a dress. I remember times when I would get so hot and my back would be sweating and I knew if I sat back in my chair it would transfer onto my clothes, that’s where the right colour can help to disguise back sweat. Regardless of colour, it doesn’t feel great to have clothes sticking to a sweaty body.

Thank heaven corporate dress codes no longer made stockings or pantyhose mandatory with dresses, although there were times I still wore them. During a hot flash, I regretted that decision.

When I was a teenager and going through puberty, my mom was going through menopause. We lived in Manitoba where it can be very cold in the winter. I had no idea what my mom was going through. My mom, dad and I would be watching a show on TV. Mom would get up and adjust the thermostat, soon dad and I would be reaching for a blanket. Then she would get up and turn the heat up, we would then lose the blanket. We never said anything to her but dad and I would just look at each other and shrug. When I started going through menopause, I completely understood what she was going through.

I also mentioned night sweats at the beginning, they are the night time version of a hot flash. Night sweats usually disrupt sleep which can cause a woman to be exhausted by morning. They were so intense that they would wake me up. At that moment, all I wanted to do was get the blankets and sheets off of my body. This isn’t merely putting a foot or leg out from under the covers to cool off, this is, get everything away from my body. There were times my bedsheets would be soaked, thank heaven I was single, I could move to the other side of the bed. Like hot flashes, the body will then cool after a night sweat. All of the covers I wanted no where near my body, suddenly, I couldn’t find them fast enough to get my body warm. The back and forth numerous times a night, covers on, covers off, did not lend itself to a good night sleep.

The cycle would start all over the next day, hot flashes during the day, night sweats at night. 

This isn’t short-term for most women, it can go on for months and years. These two symptoms alone can make a woman feel like she has lost all control of her body, like it is working against her. It can be completely debilitating and a lack of proper sleep further affects a woman’s emotional and mental state.

At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned hot flashes and night sweats can be brought on by food, beverages, stress and products a woman uses on her body and in her home. I will provide some examples but this is not a detailed list and, each woman is different.

The foods that seem to have the biggest effect on them are highly refined foods such as pasta, and bread made from white flour, pizza crust can fall into this category as well. High-sugar foods which would include candy, chocolate, pastries, and ice cream seem to have an effect on most women.

Beverages that are higher in sugar, for example, soft drinks, white wine, distilled alcohol and liqueurs can increase hot flashes and night sweats. Red wine can cause hot flashes as well because it causes the blood vessels to dilate.

Products a woman uses on her body and in her home can affect her hormones, they are called xenoestrogens which means they mimic estrogens. These products can also have an effect on how well her liver is working, one of our body’s most important detoxifier and metabolizer. The liver also produces cholesterol which is a key component in producing new hormones. Our skin is another important source of detoxification but its efficiency can be affected by what is being put on it. Many personal care products have been filled with ingredients that aren’t good for women or men when it comes to hormone health. This is starting to change but we have a long way to go.

Let’s talk about stress. When I started to learn more about the body and menopause while I was studying holistic nutrition, I realized that stress had a major effect on my hot flashes and night sweats. I don’t think that my body suddenly started to experience hot flashes and night sweats the same week I accepted a position with a new company, that would be quite the coincidence. I do believe the level of stress I was experiencing starting a new job with a company that required me to travel a lot, learn a very comprehensive and detailed financial services platform and move myself to a new city halfway across the country, definitely contributed. I’m sure my cortisol levels at the time were very high. Everyone is affected by cortisol differently but when a woman is transitioning through menopause, it has a much greater effect.

For some women, one of the various forms of hormone therapy can help to reduce hot flashes and night sweats and unfortunately, some women do benefit from hormone therapy. I believe that is because there are other factors affecting her overall health.

I have had a lot of success with women who make changes in what they are eating and drinking, this is what helped me the most. Eating meals made with whole food ingredients, especially cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and brussels sprouts, can help to reduce hot flashes and night sweats. Cruciferous vegetables help keep our liver healthy by supporting its natural metabolic processes and detoxification.

Avoiding alcohol and sugar as much as possible is a big benefit, although, it may make girl’s night out a bit less fun but so worth it in the long run.

When needing help deciding what personal care and home care products are healthier for us and our homes, I recommend either EWG.org, they also have an app or an app called Think Dirty. Many products have been entered into both of these sources and provide great information when choosing better options. The bonus is, what is healthy for our bodies, is also healthy for the environment. There are many companies that have great ads about empowering women and body positivity, but they are not the best options for our health, one that comes to mind is Dove. They contain ingredients that are not good for women or men and the environment. 

Earlier in the post I said I would calmly remove my jacket when in a meeting. I knew there were physical signs something was happening to me, it was easy to see. The last thing I wanted to do was to draw attention to myself any further. In 2010 when I started with my last corporate company, menopause was not talked about as it is today. The technology industry is male dominated, it was hard enough being a woman in the industry, I didn’t need the stigma of my state of health determining my abilities. I did have colleagues ask if I was okay and I would answer yes and pull out my fan. I didn’t bother to say that I was going through menopause. If I was working in that environment now, I would say I am experiencing a hot flash which is a common symptom of menopause.

I hope this information on hot flashes and night sweats provides some insight into how these symptoms can affect a woman. How unsettling it can be and how they can have an effect on performance at times. 

Menopause is a normal passage in a woman’s life. The transition can be tough but we still have a lot to offer and I believe we are coming into the best time of our lives.

Thank you for reading my words.

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