Hot flushes are a common symptom experienced by women going through menopause, and are believed to be due to fluctuating levels of the hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen levels fall dramatically during menopause, which then has an impact on how the hypothalamus (control centre in the brain) modulates body temperature, which can lead to a feeling of over-heating. This over-heating triggers off an attempt to cool the body again, and is done by directing more blood to the skin (one of the causes of both the reddening of the skin, and hot flushes themselves, as the blood rushing to the skin may cause skin temperature to rise). The sweat glands also work to cool the body down by creating what is known as the ‘menopausal sweat’.
There are many foods that you can include in your daily diet which may help to reduce the incidence and the severity of hot flushes. These foods contain specific chemical compounds which work in different ways to control the variable triggers for hot flushes. We’ve outlined five of these foods below.
Soybeans contain compounds called isoflavones. These isoflavones are able to weakly bind to oestrogen receptors in the body, which can then help reduce the incidence of a hot flush by increasing oestrogen levels. More specifically, it is thought that a compound called ‘genistein’ (a phytoestrogen) may be the most beneficial isoflavone in controlling hot flushes.
Studies have found that consuming 54 milligrams of isoflavones per day for a minimum of six weeks has a positive effect on decreasing the severity and frequency of hot flushes. To make sure you get this amount per day, you need to consume either 1 cup of tofu, half a cup of cooked soya beans, or ¼ of a cup of edamame beans. Tofu is also rich in calcium, which also is beneficial during menopause due to the loss of bone density experienced when oestrogen levels fall.
Flaxseed and flaxseed oil work in a similar way to soy, as they contain phytochemicals called ‘lignans’, which have an oestrogenic effect on the body, and may help to reduce the incidence of hot flushes. Flaxseed also contains alpha-linolenic acid, which is a form of omega-3 that the body can convert into the anti-inflammatory components EPA and DHA— both long-chain, omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is especially good for heart health as well, which is important during menopause, as the risk of heart disease increases as oestrogen levels drop.
3. Oily fish
Omega-3 fatty acids may also help to reduce the incidence of hot flushes due to the EPA they contain. Studies have shown that eating oily fish, or supplementing with fish oil reduces the number of hot flushes, but not the severity of them. For this to be really effective, it is advised you eat 2-3 portions of oily fish a week minimum, or take 1g of fish oil per day. Omega-3 also helps minimise levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) and increase ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL cholesterol). This lowers your risk of developing heart disease, which can increase both with age, and declining oestrogen levels.
4. Fruits & vegetables (containing antioxidants C & E especially)
As both vitamin C and E are antioxidants, they are beneficial in reducing hot flushes, as they control the inflammatory processes in the body. More specifically, these vitamins inhibit particular markers of inflammation in the body (seen more during menopause) such as malonaldehyde, which is a particular by-product that is elevated during the inflammatory process.
Also, lower levels of antioxidants vitamin C and E in one’s diet affects the levels of the antioxidant enzymes— catalase and superoxide dismutase— which help alongside vitamin C and E to reduce the inflammatory process. These vitamins are also associated with a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, due to their inhibition of LDL cholesterol production, and work in reducing inflammation on a cellular level.
Vitamin E and C are also thought to reduce the intensity and number of hot flushes because they support adrenal gland function, which allows for an increase in hormonal production, (specifically oestrogen, as the adrenal glands help to make this hormone), which then in turn helps to produce more antioxidants, as oestrogen is a natural antioxidant.
5. Whole grains
Whole grains such as brown rice, barley, and oatmeal may be beneficial in preventing hot flushes due to the lignans they contain (also found in flaxseed), which help to raise oestrogen levels by mimicking the same action as naturally occurring oestrogen in the body. These whole grains are also high in fibre, which helps to prevent elevated cholesterol and blood sugar levels, which may be more likely as oestrogen levels decline.
Foods that encourage hot flushes
There are also foods that may encourage the onset of hot flushes. Caffeine, alcohol, spicy food, and hot drinks in general all cause a rise in body temperature, therefore these may trigger a hot flush. Also excessive dairy, or red meat may trigger a hot flush, because these are both pro-inflammatory foods which can lead to hormonal imbalances— especially in the adrenal glands— which in turn can increase adrenaline, and trigger a hot flush.