The science behind hot flushes
Hot flushes are believed to be caused by fluctuating hormonal levels, with oestrogen being the primary culprit: oestrogen levels decrease dramatically during menopause. Additionally, the hormone progesterone also plays an important role in factors relating to hot flushes: normally it would help regulate the balance of hormones including oestrogen and testosterone, however if depleted, these levels would become extremely imbalanced, and could lead to a hot flush. Progesterone, in particular, is depleted by stress, so therefore, as being anxious about having a hot flush in public brings on stress, it becomes more likely you’ll actually experience one.
Stress can be a major factor in triggering hot flushes: through the release of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) from the adrenal glands (located just above the kidneys) into the bloodstream. This surge of adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and blood flow to increase, consequently leading to an increase in temperature. A hot flush is your body’s response to that increase in temperature, and is its attempt to cool down.
Conversely, the incidence of a hot flush may be enough in itself to bring on an episode of stress. A common feeling with stress is the belief of having no control over it, making it an uncomfortable psychological experience. Anxiety is, therefore, a common precursor to an additional surge of adrenaline: so, a vicious cycle can potentially begin.
Furthermore, the physical repercussions such as a feeling of overheating can produce a sense of feeling out of control. Your natural instinct is to alleviate this by any means necessary, causing your stress levels to increase dramatically. This is all because the hot flush itself increases adrenaline levels in your system, therefore this alone can be enough to stimulate a stress response in the body.
Your diet is also a potential cause of hot flushes, so if you eat poorly it could be worth considering a change in this area. By increasing your dietary intake of foods high in omega 3, organic produce, wholegrains, lean meat and vegetable proteins, and foods low in saturated fats and high in antioxidants may be beneficial for hormonal balance. These foods are great sources of the vitamins and minerals needed to balance hormonal levels and also have anti-inflammatory properties, which may help to minimise hot flushes.
It may also be beneficial to avoid alcohol, spicy foods, lemon, chocolate, monosodium glutamate (alternatively known as MSG, and one of the highest naturally occurring non-essential amino acids found in many fruits and vegetables), hot liquids, caffeinated drinks, sulphites (found in red wine, dried fruits and cheddar cheese) and sodium nitrate (found in cured meats such as hot dogs, bacon and ham). A helpful tip: keep a food diary of your daily intake, this can help determine which foods are the trigger for your hot flushes.
Herbs to alleviate hot flushes
Herbs such as black cohosh, sage, and red clover may all be used to alleviate hot flushes as these all work to increase the levels of oestrogen in the body, as they contain oestrogenic-like properties.
Minimising stress may be key to reducing the incidence of hot flushes. This can be done by either doing things like exercise, yoga, meditation, relaxation exercises or massage, or just finding things to do that relax you specifically. Other factors that may trigger hot flushes could be tight clothes, smoking, or hot environments. All of these can affect hormonal balance, and trigger the hot flushes by overheating or causing inflammation. Of course it’s impossible to avoid these situations completely, but minimising them could be just as beneficial.
Things to consider
Some of these herbs mentioned should be avoided in particular cases, as they may react negatively with certain medications. Please inform your GP before consuming any herbs or supplementation due to possible contraindications.
Herbs such as sage may affect certain conditions, specifically diabetes, as this lowers blood sugar, which is important if you are taking medication to lower blood sugar already. Black cohosh and red clover are also not advised for people who suffer from cancer or liver disease.
From Claire Ward
Claire is a Nutritional Therapist with five years experience, specialising in sports nutrition, weight loss, hormonal and gut issues. Claire has a BSc Hons degree in Nutritional Therapy and runs her own nutrition and well-being business.