For the past few years, on Mondays during school holidays when I'm home, I've been going to church with my mother, where a group of ladies gets together to sew quilts for Lutheran World Relief. The regulars are Mary, who just turned ninety, Helen and Nellie who are slightly younger, Mom, and me. Of late, the major source of amusement (other than gossip and reminiscing, of course), has been Mom's hot flashes. Her face gets red, she starts panting and fanning herself with her shirt, peeling off layers of clothing, and obsessively opening windows. When Mom asks, "Is it hot in here, or is it just me?" this is not an attempt at a bad pick-up line. Helen finds it all particularly amusing, as her husband Earl is also getting hot flashes; he takes hormone shots for his prostate trouble. They've all been through this already, of course.

Hot flashes, also called night sweats or, if you're feeling particularly pretentious, vasomotor disturbances, are a symptom usually associated with menopause, but any situation in which hormone levels are fluctuating can cause them; Earl's shots, for example, or a hysterectomy. They are actually caused by the body trying to cool itself. The changing hormone levels confuse the area of the hypothalamus that regulates body temperature, and it activates all of the body's cooling systems at once. Blood vessels near the skin dilate, rushing blood to the surface (hence vasomotor). Sweating. Panting. This makes the sufferer hot, but once it's started working, since they really didn't need the extra cooling, they get cold and shivery. In menopause, hot flashes occur with different frequency; Mom gets them very often. Particularly at odd hours of the night, which makes sneaking into my bedroom at four in the morning a futile effort.

The most common recommended treatment for hot flashes is Hormone Replacement Therapy. Mom tried this for a while; unfortunately, a possible side effect of HRT is, you guessed it, hot flashes. Now she takes black kohash supplements, which have low-dose plant-based phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are also touted in red clover (courtesy BlueDragon), and, of course, soy. Other suggestions are to get fat (it increases surface area to volume ratio and adds insulation), stop smoking, and exercise. At the moment, Mom is using the methods women have for ages untold: Dress in layers, fan yourself, eat lots of ice cream, have a sense of humor about yourself, and wait for it to end. After all, all things pass eventually.

This was cold comfort to me last Monday, bent over the quilting table with menstrual cramps.

The Complete Medical Guide, Dr. Benjamin F. Miller
All New Medical Book of Remedies for People Over 50
And various web sites.