Hot flushes during menopause are common, but exercise is thought to play a major part in alleviating these unwelcome symptoms - and can also have a positive impact on your physical and mental health.
It is thought that the severity of the hot flushes may be due to an imbalance in the adrenal glands (situated just above your kidneys) - which produce the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline, and the hormones cortisol and DHEA - as these glands are responsible for balancing all the other hormones in the body. Namely, oestrogen and progesterone, which are directly involved in the experience of menopausal symptoms.
Exercise and hormone levels
Exercise impacts hormonal levels in a number of different ways, which can either have a positive effect on the incidence of hot flushes, or a negative one. In some cases exercise can increase oestrogen levels, which helps to minimise hot flushes, as these are thought to be caused by a deficiency of this hormone. On the other side of this, exercise, especially if it is intensively cardio-focused, can lead to excessive adrenaline levels in the body: thus increasing the likelihood of a hot flush, due to the impact this has on the adrenal glands.
Remember that these glands are responsible for controlling the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Hot flushes are made even more likely if you have an underlining imbalance in these adrenal hormones.
Does it matter which type of exercise I do?
Due to the different ways different forms of exercise impact hormonal levels in the body, it is important to note that some forms are better than others in reducing hot flushes in some women. High-intensity cardio, such as interval training, running, or the using the gym for cardio workouts may have a negative impact on hot flushes if your adrenal glands are not able to deal with the excess adrenaline.
However, in women who have no underlining adrenal hormone imbalances, then some forms of cardio are a good thing, such as cycling or swimming. This is because during menopause, low oestrogen levels can lead to low serotonin levels, and the serotonin produced during exercise (which is also responsible for elevating your mood and combating stress) may have a positive impact on hot flushes, as it can help to balance out oestrogen levels, as well as minimising adrenaline.
Other forms of beneficial exercise are weight bearing exercises, such as walking or strength training, which would also help to prevent the incidence of osteoporosis by increasing oestrogen levels, and so increasing bone density where it is affected by a natural decline in oestrogen. Other forms of exercise, like yoga, would also be beneficial for all types of women, as these are not intensively cardio-focused.
This means they will not cause production of excessive adrenaline, which can trigger a hot flush in susceptible women. These types of exercise can also increase the production of serotonin, and minimise the risk of having a hot flush by helping to balance hormone levels, and reduce any stress experienced due to menopause. In itself, stress can also be a trigger.
In some cases, weight lifting may lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis, but this is normally in the case of excessive repetitions, using weights that are too heavy, or not varying the type of exercises you do, as this may exert extreme pressure on the joints, and thus bones.
Other lifestyle factors
A healthy diet also plays a key part in alleviating hot flushes. Introducing things like omega 3, eating organic food, and increasing lean animal and plant proteins, whole grains, and antioxidants can help you get a solid range of essential nutrients.
There are certain foods as well that are said to have a negative impact on hot flushes, such as alcohol, spicy foods, lemon, chocolate, caffeine, hot beverages, sodium nitrate (in bacon, ham and cured meats), monosodium glutamate and sulphites (found in red wine). Exercise caution with dried fruits and cheddar cheese, as they also contain sulphites.
Other things that may trigger hot flushes are stress, hot environments, tight clothes, or smoking, as these all affect hormonal balance, or trigger the hot flushes by overheating or inflammation. Avoiding, or minimising your exposure to these factors may then be helpful in managing your symptoms.