Hot Flashes: Diet, Exercise, and Lifestyle Tips

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's Note: Cathy Cram, M.S., is the resident maternal fitness expert on our sister site, Today's blog post is the second in a series on menopause health and fitness.

By Cathy Cram, M.S.

The responses from my first blog overwhelmingly mentioned hot flashes as one of the most difficult symptoms of menopause. With that in mind, I’ve spent the past week looking into the most recent research on hot flashes and treatments. I’ve come across so many treatments and lifestyle recommendations that I’ve decided to break the hot flash blog into three parts. Today I’m posting part one, which offers diet, exercise and lifestyle tips. Part two will cover alternative treatments (such as herbs and acupuncture) and part three will explore current medications prescribed for hot flashes, as well studies being done on new treatment options.

The Internet and bookstores offer an overwhelming amount of information on various hot flash treatments, making it difficult to determine which treatments are valid and which are a waste of time and money. With that in mind, the information I’ve complied on hot flashes treatments provides an overview of some of the recent studies published on this topic and recommendations from medical experts in the field of women’s health. Keep in mind that the information provided in this blog and future blogs aren’t specific recommendations for you, but should be used as a resource for working with your healthcare provider in treating your menopausal symptoms.

So, you’re having hot flashes? You’re in good company, as up to 75% of women going through menopause experience these episodes of increased skin temperature, profuse sweating, facial flushing and rapid heart rate. The exact cause of hot flashes isn’t clear, but some researchers suspect that the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that regulates temperature, may be involved. There’s other research that points to a different mechanism, involving the insular cortex section of the brain. That study found that women who have a narrower zone between their sweat/shivering set point seem to have a higher incidence of hot flashes during menopause. In those women, even a slight increase in core temperature can trigger the body to react.

The degree and frequency of hot flashes (the medical term is vasomotor symptoms, and include hot flashes, flushes and night sweats) can vary widely among menopausal women, but there are some factors that increase your risk:

  • Smoking: The Study of Women’s Health Across America (SWAN) showed that menopausal women who smoke have more frequent and intense hot flashes as compared to non-smokers.
  • Physical Inactivity: Women who don’t exercise tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and weight, as well as other factors that contribute to increased risk of hot flashes as compared to fit women.
  • Body weight: The SWAN study found that being either under or over a healthy weight can increase the risk of hot flashes. In addition, a woman with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30 had a higher number of hot flashes than women below that number.
  • Ethnicity: Hot flashes are more common with African-American and Latina women than European descent, and least common in Japanese and Chinese descent.
  • Thyroid disease.
  • Surgical menopause (removal of the ovaries) or drug-induced menopause.
  • Women who have been treated with tamoxifen or have gone through chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Start by focusing on reducing the risks factors that you can change by increasing your exercise level to reduce body fat, and take a good look at your diet to see if you need to make some nutritional changes. If you smoke, look into a smoking cessation program to help you quit.

Here are some basic tips for reducing hot flashes through diet, exercise and lifestyle changes.

Trigger Foods:
Keep a “hot flash” diary to see if there are triggers that seem to increase the frequency and degree of your hot flashes. Some women find that spicy foods, caffeine (in coffee, tea and soft drinks and other products-check labels) as well as alcohol are triggers. If you notice a pattern with some foods seeming to cause hot flashes, reducing or eliminating them from your diet may help. There’s a convenient way to chart your menopause symptoms on your smart phone by using the app myPause. It’s an easy way to be able to chart in real time.

Research hasn’t shown a strong relationship between fitness level and degree of hot flashes, but we do know that women who exercise regularly tend to have a lower body fat and stress level. Impacting weight and stress through exercise is an excellent way to improve you total health, which in turn can decrease your menopause symptoms.

I encourage women to focus as much on their strength training as they do on their cardio, as the benefits of building greater muscle mass has increasingly shown to impact bone strength and rate of muscle loss with age. Your best bet for slowing the rate you lose muscle as you age is by including some form of strength training three days a week. I like to use a resistance band to do exercises-it’s inexpensive, easy to use and you can increase the resistance of the band simply by shortening the length.

Focus on working the muscles that you don’t use with your cardio exercise, such as your core and upper body. Research has shown that one set of 10-12 repetitions is enough to gain muscle strength and that women who include strength training have decreased muscle loss and lower body fat with age as compared to women who don’t do strength training. Don’t worry, you won’t build big bulky muscles with moderate strength training-it takes intense, high level weight training for women to be able to build bulk.

A good routine to start with is one set of 10-12 reps at a weight or resistance that feels challenging by the last couple of reps. You want to put some effort into the reps, but don’t push so hard that you feel pain or strain. As you become stronger, increase your weight or band resistance to keep it feeling challenging. Remember to allow 24 hours between strength training bouts for muscle recovery.

If you’re looking for a strength training video, check out SparkPeople’s short workout videos. They've created a wide range of workout routines that are effective and fun. In addition, look for future blogs where I’ll go into targeted exercise programs for building bone strength and reducing weight gain during the menopausal years.

Paced Breathing:
There’s nothing more stressful than feeling a hot flash coming on when you’re in a public place. Your anxiety level soars, further fueling the increase in your heart rate, sweating and agitation. There’s some evidence that “paced breathing” a technique for calming your body and reducing hot flash symptoms through slow, mindful breathing, can help.

  • Initially start by practicing this technique in a quiet place so you’re able to focus on your breathing
  • Sit in a comfortable chair with your hands placed on your tummy (after you are able to correctly inhale and exhale from your abdomen you can do the breathing without the hand placement).
  • Inhale slowly for five seconds, allowing your tummy to expand out (think of pressing outward into your hands as you inhale).
  • Exhale slowly for five seconds, pulling inward on your tummy.
  • Your shoulders shouldn’t move as you do this breathing; all the movement should be in your lower abdomen.
  • Practice paced breathing several times a days, for 10-15 minutes. Use paced breathing whenever you feel stress building or at the start of a hot flash, and with practice this technique can help reduce your anxiety and physical symptoms.

    Another simple way to prevent your body from triggering a hot flash is to reduce the temperature in your home. There’s even research that’s shown that women who kept their home (or even just their bedroom) temperature at or below 68 degrees F had significantly fewer and less intense hot flashes and night sweats than women who kept their home above that temperature.

    You can further cool down your night time temperature by using a cooling pillow and other bedding accessories that were made with menopause night sweats in mind. If all else fails, here’s a tip from a friend of mine whose common sense handy work has solved her night sweat issue: Consider installing a remote control ceiling fan. Keep the remote under your pillow and in time of need, retrieve the remote, turn on and have it set so it goes off after 30 min. She tells me it’s made a big difference in the quality of her sleep.

    This is just the first level of strategies to help with hot flashes, so give these suggestions a try, and check back in two weeks for the next blog on alternative treatments.

    I’ve listed below a short list of books and websites that offer great information on menopause. Please check them out, and also feel free to post your favorite books on this topic.

  • The Menopause Book by Pat Wingert and Barbara Kantrowitz
  • The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Menopause by Holly Thacker
  • The No-Nonsense Guide to Menopause by Barbra Seaman and Laura Eldridge
  • Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective
  • Menopause Matters: Your Guide to a Long and Healthy Life by Julia Schlam Edelman
  • Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation
  • Mayo Clinic Guide to Hot Flashes

    Catherine Cram, M.S. is the author of Fit Pregnancy For Dummies, and the owner of Comprehensive Fitness Consulting, LLC. Catherine’s company specializes in providing prenatal postpartum fitness information to health-care professionals.

    Have you experienced hot flashes? How do you cope with them?