The feeling is unmistakable. You may be in an important meeting or out to dinner. Suddenly you feel heat creeping upward from somewhere deep in your body. You start sweating, your face flushes, and you feel the need to take off layers of clothing. It’s embarrassing to think that everyone around you knows what’s going on—you’re having a whopper of a hot flash.
If this sounds like you, take a little comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. About 80 percent of women get hot flashes or night sweats or both. This uncomfortable aspect of menopause can last years and may affect your sleep, your mental health, and the quality of your life.
There’s a great deal of variability to hot flashes and night sweats. Some women have symptoms so severe that they seek out medication, but some women don’t have heat related symptoms at all. Some may only experience night sweats, but not hot flashes, and vice versa. Some women have flashes once or twice a day; others have several an hour. In addition, hot flashes or night sweats may be accompanied by other symptoms such as anxiety, a rapid heart rate, insomnia, headache, dizziness, drenching sweats, or nausea.
The most common medical treatment for hot flashes or night sweats is hormone replacement therapy (HRT), in which you’re prescribed a combination of estrogen and progesterone. These medications boost your body’s stores of these hormones, which have become out of balance during the course of the menopause transition. One downside of hormone replacement therapy is that it may increase your risk of breast cancer. As a result, many women and their doctors choose not to go that route, and for women who have a history of breast cancer, these medications are not an option at all.
Because of the risks associated with hormone replacement medications, many women are looking for ways to alleviate their hot flashes naturally, and want to know if acupuncture is an option. The good news is that research in this area is promising. In one study reported in the journal Menopause, researchers found that more women in a treatment group who received acupuncture had substantial reductions in their hot flash symptoms than women in a group who had not received acupuncture.
There are a number of reasons that acupuncture may be effective in treating hot flashes, many of which involve chemical changes in your central nervous system. It’s known that acupuncture treatments increase the circulation of feel-good endorphins and balance the mood regulating hormones in your brain. In addition, acupuncture affects the hypothalamus, a part of your brain that regulates hormones and temperature regulation. Acupuncture treatments also affect the flow of blood in your vessels, and is used in treating a number of circulatory problems.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of diagnoses to describe imbalances related to hot flashes and night sweats. However, in most cases a depletion of one or more of your body’s vital substances is the culprit. When it comes to menopause, vital substances in the form of hormones become diminished. These hormones act to nourish and cool your body but when they drop, the result is a little like your body’s radiator boiling over. You become hot and your body begins to dry out.
If you choose acupuncture to treat your menopause symptoms, your practitioner is likely to combine acupuncture with other treatment tools, such as an herbal formula, dietary therapy, and fine-tuning your lifestyle. If you’ve had enough of waking up soaking wet, wearing tank tops when it’s freezing out, and shedding layers during the staff meeting, maybe it’s time to give acupuncture a try for your hot flashes.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.