Hot flashes can become a regular annoyance once you reach menopause – one minute you’re fine, the next minute you become a sweaty mess without warning. Some research shows certain foods may provide relief for hot flashes. This blog will explore the role of food and menopausal hot flashes and suggest foods you may want to focus on.
What are hot flashes?
Hot flashes, also known as hot flushes, are sudden and intense sensations of heat that spread across the body. When they are experienced at night, they are referred to as night sweats. Collectively they are called vasomotor symptoms (VMS).
They still don’t know exactly what causes these menopause symptoms, but it seems to be related to the drop of estrogen that happens during menopause. Without the moderating effect of estrogen, our thermoregulatory system becomes extremely sensitive to small changes in body temperature and responds in an over-the-top way.
Hot flashes are highly prevalent among menopausal women, with about 75% to 85% of us experiencing these uncomfortable episodes. The physical symptoms include rapid heart rate, sweating, and flushing of the skin, making daily activities challenging.
Besides the physical discomfort, hot flashes can take a pretty big emotional toll as well. They tend to be unpredictable, which can leave us feeling embarrassed, anxious and out of control. Increased irritability, anxiety, and disruptions in sleep patterns have a major impact our quality of life.
No wonder we are keen to find something that will help.
It is important to point out that while extremely annoying and exhausting, hot flashes on their own don’t cause serious health conditions. However, according to Dr. Jen Gunter, MD, in her book: The Menopause Manifesto, women with more moderate to severe symptoms are more likely to experience heart disease.
She reminds these women “to be especially careful about being current on their screening for heart health, such as regular blood pressure checks and testing for high cholesterol and diabetes”.
How diet can help with hot flashes
So far, no specific food or diet has been shown to completely eliminate hot flashes. Sadly there’s hardly been any decent research on diet and menopause. Which leaves room for lots of misguided information to float around.
A Mediterranean Diet style of eating (my #1 recommended eating pattern), high in vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats(olive oil) show good results. An Australian study of over 6000 postmenopausal women age 50-55, found that those who followed the Mediterranean style of eating reported 20% less hot flash symptoms than those who didn’t.
The Women’s Health Initiative (6104 post-menopausal women with VMS) showed that when women ate a dietary pattern with high plant intake similar to the Mediterranean diet, 14% were able to eliminate their VMS within 12 months. This was for women with mild symptoms, unfortunately for those with moderate to severe symptoms showed no improvements.
Specific foods that fight hot flashes
Already eat pretty healthy? Here are some specific foods that you might want to add to your daily diet:
1. Soy products:
Soy foods like edamame, tofu, tempeh, and soy-based foods are packed with isoflavones, a particular type of phytoestrogen compound. These phytoestrogens have the potential to lessen menopausal symptoms by mimicking the effects of estrogen in certain tissues within the body. Since menopause involves a significant decrease in estrogen levels, incorporating foods rich in phytoestrogens, such as soy, into your diet may offer relief from these symptoms.
In a recent study, known at WAVS trial, women following a low fat, plant-based diet which included adding ½ cup of soybeans per day, had an 84% reduction in moderate-to-severe hot flashes. Nearly 60% of women became entirely free from these symptoms, and overall frequency of hot flashes, including milder ones, decreased by 79%.
Increasing soy consumption may not produce consistent results for every woman, as not everyone can efficiently convert the isoflavones in soy into a usable form of phytoestrogen within our bodies. This ability is influenced by a combination of genetic factors and the composition of gut bacteria.
But even if they don’t help with hot flash symptoms, they are still beneficial to add into your diet as they are a high-quality protein that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. And the good news is that eating a moderate amount of soy foods does not increase risk of breast cancer. A moderate amount is one to two servings a day of whole-soy foods, such as tofu, soy milk and edamame.
Additional plant-based foods, such as legumes, nuts and seeds, and certain fruits and vegetables, also contain phytoestrogens and may potentially help with hot flashes. To date, there isn’t enough evidence to firmly establish this effect, but all are part of a healthy diet.
Legumes that contain high counts of phytoestrogens are:
- Lima beans
- Kidney beans
3. Nuts and Seeds:
The following nuts and seeds are high in phytoestrogens:
- sunflower seeds
- sesame seeds
4. Fruits and Vegetables:
Many fruits and vegetables are high in phytoestrogens including:
What foods make hot flashes worse?
Certain foods do seem to exacerbate hot flashes for some women. While these triggers can vary from person to person, common culprits that may worsen hot flashes include the following foods:
Spicy Foods: Spicy dishes, hot sauces, and excessive consumption of chili peppers are reported to be triggering for many women.
Caffeine: Coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate contain caffeine, which can stimulate the nervous system and potentially lead to more frequent and intense hot flashes.
Alcohol: Alcohol can dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow, potentially contributing to hot flashes. However, the evidence is inconsistent on this- some showing increased severity and some no impact at all. I have written about the other impacts alcohol has on menopause here.
What if diet doesn’t help?
If dietary changes don’t provide significant relief from hot flashes during menopause, there are several medical interventions to consider:
Hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) either with estrogen alone (following hysterectomy) or both estrogen and progestin (if you have a uterus; to avoid endometrial cancer) is recommended as first-line therapy for treatment of moderate-to-severe hot flashes, according to the North American Menopause Society.
Prescription Medications: In cases where HRT is not suitable or desired, healthcare providers may prescribe non-hormonal medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These drugs can help manage hot flashes, especially if they are affecting quality of life.
In May 2023, the FDA in the United States, approved fezolinetant (Veozah). It’s the first drug specifically designed to reduce the frequency and severity of hot flushes. It is not currently available in Canada.
Trying hot flash-fighting foods in your diet may offer some valuable relief. While these foods may not eliminate hot flashes entirely, they certainly contribute to overall well-being.
If you are looking for more expert advice on improving your eating habits from a registered dietitian, don’t hesitate to reach out. For more tips, inspiration and my latest blog posts, please join my FB page.