Menopause is something I rarely think about. My take is that there’s no reason to anticipate and fret over life events that haven’t yet happened. I’ll dream about my next vacation, even when it’s far off, because it’s a nice respite, but with menopause I’ll deal only when it comes.
But new research I just read makes me think that there might be some merit to planning for this life transition. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the connection between hot flashes and what women eat, and offers further support to the notion that diet can relieve these very annoying symptoms.
What’s a hot flash? They say that, much like becoming a parent to a newborn, until you get one, you don’t understand what it’s really like. It’s described as a feeling of increased skin temperature, profuse sweating, sometimes accompanied by facial flushing and a rapid heart rate. It’s not dangerous, and it’s extremely common, but when it happens at night it interrupts good sleep, which is the cornerstone of health and wellbeing in my opinion.
Veggies and fruit protective; fat and sugar a risk
The Australian study included about 6000 middle-aged women, who were followed for 9 years. The women were asked about night sweats and hot flashes, and about their food habits.
After adjustment for confounders such as education level, smoking, obesity, physical activity etc., two food patterns were associated with fewer hot flashes: high fruit intake and Mediterranean style diet (veggies, garlic, red wine, tomatoes). On the other hand, high fat and high sugar diets were associated with high rates of reported hot flashes.
What does food have to do with hot flashes? The exact cause of hot flashes is unknown, but it is thought that estrogen withdrawal, which happens during menopause, disrupts our body’s thermostat. Hormone replacement is one of the most effective treatments for severe symptoms, but hormonal therapy does carry some risk, therefore lifestyle modifications that can offer relief are in high demand.
Foods for hot flashes
Some women recognize certain foods trigger hot flashes for them. General food triggers include caffeine, alcohol and spicy food.
Several years ago, soy products were heavily favored for the prevention of hot flashes. Soy has plant estrogens (phytoestrogens), which were believed to provide natural estrogen replacement. Asian women, who live in countries where soy is a big part of the diet, also report fewer hot flashes than women in western countries (there are of course many lifestyle differences that can explain this phenomenon, and complaining might be cultural, too). The effectiveness of soy for hot flashes still remains controversial, though, with some studies showing benefits, and others showing none.
Can a more plant-based diet affect the incidence of hot flashes? There are many mechanisms that can provide a logical explanation for why that might be a real connection. Foods affect estrogen metabolism; sugar metabolism and blood glucose levels might affect blood vessel dilation and contraction, for example. The authors of this study say theirs is the first ever study to look at dietary patterns and hot flashes, and it would be interesting to see if further research can confirm these findings.
As a woman, though, if you needed another reason to eat your plants and move away from high fat and high sugar foods, here it is.