Menopause is a natural biological process. For some, it happens in their 40s while others start later in life in their 50s (the average age is 51 in the United States, according to Mayo Clinic). But regardless of when you may start experiencing the end of your menstrual cycles — menopause is diagnosed after you’ve gone 12 months without a menstrual period — I think we can all agree that the physical symptoms associated with it can be extremely uncomfortable. And not only that, but they can last for months and sometimes even years.
Hot flashes are a common symptom associated with menopause, but did you know that there’s actually a name for it? Yep, for as many years as women have been around, we’re just now raising awareness of vasomotor symptoms (VMS). VMS is characterized as hot flashes and/or night sweats and can impact many aspects of your life such as sleep, ability to focus, and personal relationships. If this is the first time you’re reading about VMS, don’t worry, below we outline everything you need to know about it, including who it affects and different levels of severity.
You have probably heard the term “hot flashes” in movies or from women in your life, but what actually is a hot flash? Hot flashes are when your face, neck, or other parts of your body start to suddenly heat up out of nowhere. They can be accompanied by sweating, chills, or even a rapid heartbeat.
Night sweats are also a part of VMS as they are hot flashes that occur at night. Unfortunately, having night sweats can interrupt sleep patterns and make getting a good night’s sleep a challenge.
As mentioned, menopause (and perimenopause) are both natural processes. But if you want to know exactly how VMS originates, it all starts in the hypothalamus, also known as the part of the brain that regulates your body’s temperature. To keep your body temperature in check, your body needs to have a balance between estrogen and a brain chemical called NKB. However, during menopause, levels of estrogen and NKB become unbalanced, which causes the neurons in your hypothalamus to tell you you’re hot when you’re not. And in order to cool down, your body triggers hot flashes and night sweats.
Hot flashes are categorized by severity meaning they could either be mild (you’re hot but not sweating), moderate (you’re hot and starting to sweat, but you can keep going), or severe (when you’re so hot and sweaty, you literally have to stop what you’re doing). There’s no way to tell which category you’re going to fall into, but on average, women experience 33 night sweats and hot flashes per week, according to a study. If you find your hot flashes or night sweats to be debilitating, it’s suggested to seek a doctor for medical advice and/or treatment if you have any concerns.
Who it affects
Up to 80 percent of women will experience VMS associated with menopause. In Black and Hispanic women, it can last two to four years longer as compared to White women. VMS also affects a higher number of Black and Hispanic women and can start as early as age 40 and last longer than 10 years for some women.
What can help
There are FDA-approved treatments for VMS caused by menopause that you can discuss with your doctor. There are also steps you can take to try to avoid setting off a hot flash. Some seemingly normal things you may currently be doing could trigger a hot flash, according to Cleveland Clinic. These include, but are not limited to, smoking, drinking caffeine and alcohol, heat, spicy foods, and tight clothing. To limit the number of hot flashes, try to avoid things that trigger them, which means cutting back on spicy foods or making sure you don’t overheat during a workout.
No matter which route you decide to take, remember to talk to your healthcare provider about any treatment options as they know your medical history and can offer the best guidance on what may be right for you.