For Hot Flashes, Healthy Diet, Exercise and an Attitude Adjustment Can Bring Relief
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.
Finally, Elavsky finds that attitude may play an important role on how menopause affects women, especially when it comes to physical activity. Women who exercise vigorously appear to “have ways of dealing with (hot flashes) and believe they can control or cope with them in an effective way on a daily basis.” They also experienced less depression and anxiety. Elavsky suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy to help women feel more in control may also help to reduce symptoms or at least help improve their reactions to them.
About 40% of North American women seek treatment for menopausal symptoms. As concerns increase about the safety of HRT, lifestyle interventions are probably the best first steps to take to help cope with this part of womanhood.
Kroenke CH, et al "Effects of a dietary intervention and weight change on vasomotor symptoms in the Women's Health Initiative" Menopause 2012; DOI: 10.1097/gme.0b013e31824f606e.
Elavsky, Steriani et al. Daily physical activity and menopausal hot flashes: Applying a novel within-person approach to demonstrate individual differences. Maturitas, 2012; 71 (3): 287 DOI:10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.12.011
Elavsky, Steriani et al. Effects of physical activity on vasomotor symptoms: examination using objective and subjective measures. Menopause, 2012 DOI: 10.1097/gme.0b013e31824f8fb8