For Hot Flashes, Healthy Diet, Exercise and an Attitude Adjustment Can Bring Relief

Jul 11 2012 - 12:28pm
women's health, menopause, hot flashes

Menopause may be a natural event in a woman’s lifetime, but the symptoms that accompany this period of time can be difficult, including hot flashes and night sweats. Some simple interventions may help decrease these symptoms, such as diet and exercise that leads to loss of excess weight and a healthy attitude.

In general, women who are overweight or obese or who are inactive tend to have an increased risk of menopausal symptoms. These include “perceived hot flashes,” notes Steriani Elavsky, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State who is also studying the effects of lifestyle interventions on menopausal vasomotor symptoms. Perceived hot flashes do not always correspond to actual hot flashes, which occur as a result of decreased production of estrogen and progesterone.

Candyce H. Kroenke ScD MPH of Kaiser Permanente and colleagues analyzed data on 17,473 Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study participants aged 50 to 79 who were not taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Similar to the general population, most of the women in the study were overweight. The first objective was to evaluate the effect of diet on menopausal symptoms. Some previous studies have suggested that a low fat, high-fiber diet can improve hot flashes.

Overall, those women who received the dietary intervention – which included increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains - had a 14% greater likelihood of symptoms resolution.

While weight loss was not the primary objective, the authors did note that women who lost weight during the year-long study had significantly decreased menopausal vasomotor symptoms. Those who lost at least 10 pounds were 23% more likely to see symptoms resolve and women who lost 10% or more of their baseline body weight were 56% more likely to have resolution of symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats.

Dr. Kroenke explains that greater body fat provides insulation that may hinder heat loss, and hot flashes and night sweats provide a way to dissipate that heat.

A separate study, conducted by Penn State’s Elavsky suggests that increased physical activity may also be a method for alleviating menopausal symptoms. She and her colleagues recruited 92 menopausal women with mild to moderate symptoms to participate in a 15 day study. The women were 40 to 59 years of age and were also not on hormone therapy. During the analysis, the researchers divided the women into weight and fitness categories.

The women wore accelerometers to monitor physical activity and also wore monitors that measured skin conductance, which varies with the moisture level of the skin, to assess actual hot flashes. Each participant also recorded their individual hot flashes on a personal digital assistant (PDA) device, to help separate perceived hot flashes from those actually occurring.

Despite the thinking that exercise would raise core body temperature, making hot flashes worse, the women who exercised experienced fewer hot flash symptoms. The study was not long enough to measure the effect of exercise on weight loss, and whether this would further help with menopausal symptoms, but based on this data, a combination of a healthy diet and physical exercise could help women alleviate at least some of their symptoms.

"Since most women tend to gain weight with age…It (weight loss or weight gain prevention) seems like this would be a reasonable alternative for women who don't want to take hormone therapy as a way of reducing hot flashes and night sweats," said Dr. Kroenke.