Benjamin Franklin was famous for saying that, ‘In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ If he were a woman, however, he would undoubtedly have added the menopause. As the trend towards a longer and healthier lifespan continues, women are increasingly spending as much as 50 per cent of their years in the post-menopausal phase, but the good news is you don’t have to put up with symptoms such as hot flushes.
What are hot flushes?
If you suffer from hot flushes you are not alone. They are a common menopausal symptom and are thought to result indirectly from lower oestrogen levels. Decreasing levels of the hormone stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating a number of automatic functions, such as temperature, sweating and flushing. When it is overworked as the menopause approaches, these other systems can go awry leading to hot flushes and night sweats.
When do they happen?
Their intensity, frequency and duration vary. For example you may get them regularly throughout the day and even wake up with them at night, they may last no more than 30 seconds or can last as long as ten minutes, although this is uncommon. As well as a sudden rush of heat, symptoms include flushing, palpitations, dizziness, anxiety and irritability.
Typical triggers include heat, increased humidity, alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods, which are all best avoided. For some women even a hot drink or walking into a warmer room is enough to trigger that dreaded surge of heat.
Are some women more prone?
Menopause symptoms such as hot flushes may be hereditary and every woman is different. Around one in four have no significantly troublesome symptoms, one in four have severe symptoms, while half have symptoms with which they can cope by tweaking their diet and making lifestyle changes.
Thin women also tend to get worse symptoms as the body’s fat stores continue to produce some oestrone (a weak oestrogen) after the menopause. It’s also thought that women with stressful lives may be more affected. The reason? The adrenal glands also produce small amounts of oestrone, but this drops during times of stress when the adrenals are pumping out more cortisol and adrenaline. Smoking also has an adverse effect on the ovaries, which lowers oestrogen levels, making menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes worse.
Do they ever stop?
Again, every woman is different. For some, symptoms improve within a few months, but most women who experience symptoms continue to have hot flushes for at least a year after the menopause, and one in two will have flushes for as long as five years afterwards. Around 29 per cent of women aged 60 still experience some hot flushes. Eventually, however, they will stop as your body and hypothalamus become used to lower oestrogen levels.
Did you know?
Hot flushes and night sweats can start anytime within the ten years leading up to the menopause.
Beat the heat
Rob Hobson, Healthspan, Head of Nutrition, with the help of Dr Brewer looks at what women can do to help prevent hot flushes. He says, “Interestingly, there is no Japanese word for “hot flashes.” Researchers believe that it has more to do with their traditional diet. Besides providing more vegetable protein and less animal protein than a Western diet, it’s also low in fat and high in soy products such as tofu. These foods are rich in plant compounds known as phytoestrogens, which seem to mimic some of the biological activities of female hormones.”
- Keep active Research shows that regular exercise (three hours of brisk walking, stretching, muscle-strengthening and relaxation exercises a week) can reduce even severe menopausal symptoms.
- Try supplements: Rob Hobson says, “There is a growing body of evidence supporting THRs such as Healthspan’s Black Cohosh, – a traditional herbal remedy for menopausal symptoms – can help reduce the number of hot flushes. There are also soy isoflavones, sage leaf and further information on different supplements can be found here
- Stub out Research shows smoking increases the risk of flushing so do your utmost to give it up for good.
- Eat little and often The heat generated by digesting big meals can bring on or aggravate flushing.
- Avoid stress It drains the adrenal glands meaning they produce less oestrone. Make time to relax every day. Relaxation techniques such as yoga and breathing can help too.
- Stay cool Hot rooms can aggravate flushing so keep your house and bedroom temperature cool. In the summer use a fan.
- Steer clear of triggers These include alcohol, spicy foods, hot drinks and high indoor temperatures
- Layer up Wear several layers of thin clothes so you can peel them off if a flush strikes. In bed go for several light layers of bedclothes or a summer duvet.
- Go natural Choose clothes and bedding in natural fabrics such as cotton and linen. Avoid synthetic fibres and silk, which can aggravate flushes.
- Spray it Keep a water spray in your fridge to help cool you down if the going gets hot. Carry some cool wipes in your handbag at all times.
- “Eat your isoflavones,” says Rob Hobson. Try a few servings each day such as fortified soya milk and yoghurt, miso, tofu or edamame.
- Boost your intake of natural phytoestrogens by including plenty of wholegrain foods (oats, barley and brown rice), legumes (chickpeas and beans), seeds (sunflower and pumpkin) and sprouts (mung bean, red clover and alfalfa).
- Protect your heart with Omega 3 which is especially important during the menopause and beyond, it has also been shown to help reduce the effect of hot flushes. Try including up to 4 portions of oily fish each week (salmon, tuna, trout or mackerel) or a supplement if you don’t eat fish.