It came on like a late-night craving for chocolate-chunk ice cream: I was at my second-trimester ultrasound, and somewhere between determining my baby’s gestational age and gender, I was hit with an intense hot flash. The exam room became a sauna. My vision blurred and, for a moment, my baby seemed to have two heads. The technician gave me a cold cloth for my forehead and sped through the rest of the exam. Soon after leaving, however, I felt fine, and admired the photos of my lovely, healthy, one-headed baby.
Hot flashes affect more than half of pregnant women, usually in the first and second trimester and on a weekly basis, according to a 2010 study from the University of Pennsylvania. Pregnancy hot flashes, like those related to menopause, result from fluctuating levels of hormones (primarily estrogen), which tend to soar when you’re expecting.
While hot flashes may be uncomfortable and embarrassing, they’re usually harmless and no medical treatment is needed, says family physician Unjali Malhotra, a women’s health specialist at Cross Roads Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Vancouver. “We try not to intervene more than we have to for the sake of a healthy pregnancy,” she says. “Have ice water on hand, maintain a healthy weight, do appropriate exercise for pregnancy and, if your doctor thinks it’s OK, try acupuncture.” Malhotra adds that overweight women are more likely to experience hot flashes because fat tissue creates its own estrogen supply.
It sounds counterintuitive, but some research has shown that working up a sweat can actually combat hot flashes. A 2010 study in the Journal of Nurse-Midwifery found that women who exercised reported fewer hot flashes.
Unbalanced meals and anxiety can also exacerbate hot flashes. This explains why I’ve experienced them in stressful situations (like the time I was stalled in traffic, late for an appointment, with a full bladder and an empty gas tank) and after indulging in a pastry and a demitasse. Toronto naturopath Natasha Turner, author of The Hormone Diet, recommends maintaining blood-sugar balance by eating every three to four hours and having protein with every meal. She also advises avoiding spicy foods and caffeine, and curbing carbohydrate cravings. “Don’t see pregnancy as a reason to go carb crazy, because it raises your body temperature and makes you have more hot flashes,” says Turner. She sometimes suggests hormone-stabilizing supplements like vitamin D and fish oil.
Making simple environmental changes is another way to take the heat off. Sarah Knitter’s hot flashes were so frequent, she asked her boss to relocate her to an office with a window. “I had a bun in the oven and I was the oven,” says the Vancouver mom, who works as a student adviser at the University of British Columbia. “You can’t turn the oven off when you’re pregnant, and that’s the challenging part.”
Knitter would work in a sundress, slipping on a cardigan only if she had a meeting. “It was all about the layering,” she says. At night, there was no fighting over the covers with her husband — they had their own sets, hers light and cool. When Knitter was 37 weeks pregnant, she attended a summer music festival during a few days of sweltering weather, so she brought along a water mister and took plenty of time outs in the shade. “When I got too hot or lightheaded, I knew it was my body telling me to slow down and take it easy, or go for a walk—that’s how I managed it.”
And don’t be surprised, says Turner, if your hot flashes continue after you deliver. “Your hormones will continue to fluctuate until you’ve gone through the whole process of conceiving, pregnancy and breastfeeding.”
If you’ve been having hot flashes or night sweats, make sure your doctor or midwife first rules out any medical issues like high blood pressure, fever or an endocrine disorder, says physician Unjali Malhotra. “If both mom and the baby are fine, the hot flashes are considered a benign condition related to hormone fluctuation.”