I’m never more aware that I’m a day closer to death than when I’m melting like a freakish human dummy in House of Wax. Burning on the inside and drenched by sweat on the outside, I have zero tolerance for the slightest touch. Hands off! Don’t come near me. I’m about to self-combust. After all, what other purpose do damnable hot flashes serve than to dry up my internal organs until I disappear into a puff of smoke? One day, I may very well be reduced to a pile of dust. In an instant.
You men and younger ladies already have some idea of what we middle-aged women deal with. You’ve seen us trying to minimize contact with anything that restrains heat in our bodies. Off go our sweaters as we scoot to the edge of our seats and make more room for air flow. We could stand, but physical activity takes too much effort and makes us feel hotter.
Some of us are convinced that even the slightest amount of energy we expend in fanning ourselves may work against our attempts to snuff out the raging infernos. Desperate, we become as still as possible and resort to heavy panting—a technique perfected by dogs to cool down. We endure and survive, but in the heat of the moment, we are not glamorous at all.
We mature women have to figure out what we’re willing to do to minimize our discomfort. Exposing one of my solutions may be TMI. Let me just say that I’m often tempted to create a new Twitter hashtag: #HalfNakedAndWriting. Don’t worry, though, moms and dads (particularly mine). I won’t go public with that, because I don’t want to grab the attention of seedy characters hoping to find a provocative picture attached to the description. Instant popularity isn’t worth dealing with a bunch of stalkers. It would be nice, however, to commiserate with other women writers who have reached this milestone in the aging process.
Having lived with this curse for several years, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned. Men, I promise not to leave you out. Bear with me while I first explain why commonly recommended treatments are associated with long-term health risks. Then, I’ll reveal how you can safely help the woman you love to alleviate her symptoms.
Popular methods to reduce hot flashes can be detrimental to our health. For instance, a product called Estroven touts that it is “drug-free and estrogen-free***.” Truth in advertising perhaps, but connect those three asterisks to the information hidden in the fine print:
“***Estroven does not contain synthetic, animal or human-derived hormones.”
It sounds great, as if you’re completely avoiding the hormone estrogen. Except, if you keep researching, you’ll find that soy, a plant-based product, is listed as Estroven’s first and, therefore, most abundant ingredient, under none other than the title of “Warnings.”
What could be so bad about soy that it falls under a warning? Ingesting soy affects the levels of estrogen in our bodies and may play a role in a woman’s increased chance of developing breast cancer. In the article “Soy and Breast Cancer, What’s the Link?,” WebMD journalist Salynn Boyles reported:
“The concern about soy stems from the fact that most breast cancers are fueled by the female sex hormone estrogen. Just as the body produces estrogen, so do plants, and soy contains high amounts of estrogen-like chemicals called isoflavones. The research is unclear about how these plant-based estrogens impact the body’s own estrogen levels and breast cancer growth.” (1)
My own gynecologist recommends black cohosh as an acceptable option to reduce hot flashes. It’s known by many other names, most notably phytoestrogen. Surely any and all of those must be safe or my doctor wouldn’t suggest the herbal supplement in the first place?
Not necessarily. Scientists are still battling to determine if herbal supplements increase or decrease a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Boyles interviewed Dana Farber Cancer Center oncologist, Wendy Chen, MD, for an expert explanation. Chen indicated:
“A link between breast cancer and hormones is clear. Researchers think that the greater a woman’s exposure to the hormone estrogen, the more susceptible she is to develop breast cancer. Estrogen tells cells to divide; the more the cells divide, the more likely they are to be abnormal in some way, possibly becoming cancerous. We tell women with breast cancer to definitely avoid the [soy] supplements….Our message to the general public is that we really don’t know if supplements are safe because they haven’t been tested.”
Additionally, the American Heart Association concluded:
“The efficacy and safety of soy isoflavones for preventing or treating cancer of the breast…are not established; evidence from clinical trials is meager and cautionary with regard to a possible adverse effect. For this reason, use of isoflavone supplements in food or pills is not recommended.” (2)
We can opt not to take it in pill form, but have you noticed how prevalent soy is in our food products? Soy may be inherently natural, but it is unnaturally processed and added to many popular snack foods. It’s in M & Ms, granola bars, Oreos, chocolate covered raisins and pretzels, graham crackers, and gourmet popcorn. Sadly, all of which I have in my cupboard. Take a look in your own pantry and read a label or two. If soy is in your packaged food, you may see it noted as a type of warning in big bold print: “Contains: Soy.”
Men, there is no denying that your bodies have a little estrogen in addition to your much more abundant testosterone levels. Unknowingly, you may be taking in more estrogens through the foods you eat and even in the water you drink. I don’t want to cause anyone undue worry, but there is evidence that you also are at risk from environmentally introduced estrogens. (Take a look at environmentalhealthnews.org.)
One in eight women, and one in one thousand men, will be diagnosed with breast cancer. After being hit with that devastation—and too late in my opinion—many will be advised to avoid eating soy altogether.
The convenience of processed food is proving not to be worth the consequences on our health. Fitness guru Jillian Michaels offered practical advice when she was interviewed by CNN. She said, “If it doesn’t come out of the ground and it didn’t have a mother, don’t put it in your mouth.” (3)
How bad must a woman’s symptoms be for her to adopt the use of steroidal estrogens? They are Known To Be Human Carcinogens! The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) reports that its “National Toxicology Program has listed six substances in its Report on Carcinogens (RoC) that cause or may cause breast cancer in humans. These include: diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic form of estrogen that was used to prevent miscarriages; steroidal estrogens used for menopausal therapy; X-ray and gamma radiation; alcoholic beverages; tobacco smoking; and the sterilizing agent, ethylene oxide.” (4)
Do you read that above list and find it easy to accept that tobacco smoking may cause breast cancer? We’ve been bombarded with that knowledge for decades. Now the evidence is showing that using estrogens is risky and that we should think twice before indulging in a glass of wine. Ugh!
What can women do to get through an uncomfortable hot flash? Here are my top three recommendations:
• Embrace the fan. Based on my own experience, the instantly gratifying relief is worth the extra kilojoules, and there are many free or inexpensive options to choose from. When at home, junk mail serves as a great go-to device. Out grocery shopping? Pick up a weekly advertisement on your way into the store. Attending service? The church bulletin is handed right to you. Everywhere you go, proactively scan your immediate surroundings for emergency use of any decent cardstock. Or, channel Scarlett O’Hara and invest in something fancy and foldable. Still worried about expending too much energy? Pack a small, battery-operated fan in your purse.
• Dress in layers. Be prepared to strip down as far as public decency allows. Store your big, bulky sweaters at the bottom of the closet, and donate anything that has to be pulled over your head. Camis are the only exception, especially if you have teenagers at home. They don’t want to see you running around in anything less. Invest in clothing that has buttons or zippers all the way up and down. You’re worth an updated wardrobe.
• Rely on the man in your life. He can help with a short-term fix. Tilt your head to one side, lean in close to him, and enjoy a soothing moment as your significant other gently blows on your neck. It won’t take long for you to cool down, smile, and feel more connected to the one you love. Once you’ve relaxed—and if you and your spouse are lucky enough to be home alone when a hot flash strikes—consider the advantages to shedding all restrictive clothing.***
I think you may find that there’s nothing more natural, worry-free, and satisfying.
***Proceed with caution; squelching one fire may ignite an entirely different one.
Breast cancer in men