Night sweats and hot flushes during menopause are often seen as annoying side effects of dropping oestrogen levels, but they may be presenting more health risks than previously thought.

In a recent study, researchers found that women who have these symptoms are much more likely to develop sleep apnoea, a condition that happens when you have pauses in breathing as you sleep. These moments can last a few seconds or even minutes, before your breathing kicks in again, often with snoring. 

The study's results showed a correlation between hot flushes and sleep apnoea even after researchers adjusted for common sleep apnea factors like smoking and obesity. The type of problem seen most often for study participants is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a form that occurs when throat muscles relax, blocking your airway as you’re sleeping.

“Sleep disruption is a common complaint at menopause,” says Dr JoAnn Pinkerton. “It is important to recognise the high number of undiagnosed sleep disorders, including OSA.” She adds that early morning headaches and excessive daytime sleepiness should raise concern for OSA, and signal a possible need for sleep apnoea testing.

If you suspect you have sleep apnoea, you should definitely visit your doctor: The medical condition is closely linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, according to Dr Lila Nachtigall.

“For years, women have simply been told that they have to ‘get through’ these hot flushes, as if they’re irritating but harmless,” she says. “But there is a great deal going on in the body during these moments and we need to acknowledge that.” 

For example, she notes, studies have shown that there’s a marked decrease to blood flow in the brain while a hot flush is occurring. That’s likely tied to lack of oestrogen production, which causes a reaction by the oestrogen receptors in the brain, Nachtigall says.

There may also be decreased blood flow throughout the rest of the body, she adds, which can raise the risk of blood pressure problems and heart disease. Even though hot flushes tend to last only a few minutes, this dramatic reaction can make that timeframe seem much longer, and each one may be putting your heart and sleep at risk. 

Nachtigall’s advice for women facing the issue is to ask their doctor about treatment options. Prescription oestrogen tends to work well, she says, but there are some non-hormonal drugs that have also proven effective, such as low-dose anti-depressants.

“These medications aren’t given at a dose high enough to do anything psychologically, but they’ve been found to stop hot flushes,” she says.

Most of all, understand that there’s no reason to “tough it out,” says Nachtigall.

“We need to change our thinking about hot flushes,” she says. “They’re not just annoying, they can actually raise our risks of developing chronic illness. But fortunately, they can be treated.”