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Understanding Menopause & Hot Flashes

Understanding Menopause & Hot Flashes

Menopause is a normal condition that all women experience as they age. Menopause can describe any of the changes a woman goes through either just before or after she stops menstruating, marking the end of her reproductive period. 

Menopause is considered a normal part of the aging process when it happens after the age of 40. However, some women can experience menopause early, either as a result of surgery, such as a hysterectomy, or damage to the ovaries. Other causes for premature menopause include: premature ovarian failure, uterine cancer, endometriosis, genetics, and autoimmune disorders. Regardless of the cause, menopause that happens before age 40 is called premature menopause. 

Natural menopause is not brought on by any type of medical or surgical treatment or procedure. The process is gradual and has three stages: perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. 

Perimenopause: Begins several years before menopause, when the ovaries gradually make less estrogen. Perimenopause lasts up until menopause, the point where the ovaries stop releasing eggs. In the last 1 to 2 years of perimenopause, the drop in estrogen quickens. At this stage, many women begin to experience menopausal symptoms.

Menopause: This is the point when it's been a year since a woman last had her last menstrual cycle. At this stage, the ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and making most of their estrogen. 

Postmenopause: Are known as the years after menopause. During this stage, menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, begin to ease for most women. However, the health risks related to the loss of estrogen rise as the woman ages. 

Symptoms of Menopause

The most common symptom of menopause and perimenopause are hot flashes. A hot flash is the sudden feeling of heat and sometimes a red, flushed face and sweating. They start when the blood vessels near the skin's surface widen to cool off, making you break out into a sweat. During this, some women may experience a rapid heart rate or chills, too.

The severity of hot flashes varies from mild in most women to severe in others. When they happen while you sleep, they are called night sweats and can wake you up and may make it hard to get enough rest. Some women may also experience a hot flush, which is a hot flash plus redness in your face and neck.

The length of hot flashes depend on the woman's body. About 2 in 10 women never get hot flashes, while others have hot flashes for only a very short period of time. Still, some women can have them for 11 years or more. On average though, women typically get hot flashes or night sweats for about 7 years.  

Other common symptoms of menopause include the following:

It's important to remember that every woman is different and not all women get all of these symptoms. These symptoms are also often temporary and pass as your body adjusts.

Treating Menopause & Hot Flashes

Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to avoid hot flashes around menopause, and there's nothing you can do to avoid menopause itself. However, there are ways to treat menopause and alleviate the symptoms associated with it, including hot flashes. 

Hot Flash Prevention

While you can't necessarily prevent hot flashes, you can stay away from triggers that may make them more frequent or more severe. Common triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Spicy Food
  • Tight Clothing
  • Heat
  • Cigarette Smoke    

What you can do for Hot Flashes

One of the best things you can do for hot flashes is to stay cool. At night, use a chilled pillow, filled with water or other cooling material that might help. Use fans or air conditioning during the day. Wear lightweight, looser-fitting clothes that are made with natural fibers. 

Try deep, slow abdominal breathing. Practice deep breathing for 15 minutes in the morning and evening, and when a hot flash starts. Exercise daily. Some studies show that eating enough foods with soy in them, such as tofu and edamame may help, as well as B complex vitamins, vitamin E, and ibuprofen, too. 

The good news is that most women can wait out hot flashes with no treatment. But, if they are becoming bothersome or causing trouble for you, talk to your doctor about taking hormone replacement therapy, or HRT for a limited time, or less than 5 years. This prevents hot flashes for many women, and it helps other symptoms of menopause, including vaginal dryness and mood swings. 

Note: When you stop taking HRT, the hot flashes may return. Some short term HRT can make you more likely to have blood clots, breast and endometrial cancers, and gallbladder inflammation.

It's important to consult with your doctor before taking any medical or herbal medication and supplements to see what would be the right path for you.  

Treatments for Menopause

After menopause, HRT is often prescribed to resupply the body with the hormones it no longer produces. This must be discussed with your doctor, as with any medication, there are risks and benefits, and your doctor can provide you with that key information.

HRT typically consists of an estrogen/progestin supplement, usually given orally or through a skin patch or gel. Estrogen is the component that treats hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and osteoporosis. 

Estrogen alone can increase the risk of endometrial or uterine cancer, but progestin counteracts that risk. However, both progestin and estrogen can have negative side effects. Again, speak with your doctor concerning all side effects of any medication. 

Alternative Treatment

Your diet can also help you get through menopause. Eating foods high in plant estrogens, such as soy beans and soy milk, can ease symptoms. Eating nuts and seeds, fennel, celery, parsley, and flaxseed oil may also help, as well as increasing Vitamin C

It's recommended to raise your calcium intake to 1,000 - 1,500MG per day and do regular weight bearing exercise to avoid osteoporosis and maintain good health. Also, as an alternative treatment, an extract of black cohosh is thought to reduce symptoms without causing the problems associated with estrogen. 

It is crucial to understand that there is little scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of these alternative treatments. As always, consult your doctor before taking any medication and/or supplements. 

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