Hot flashes and night sweats have long been considered inevitable symptoms of menopause for women. But new research suggests that hot flashes and night sweats can be reduce—or avoided altogether—without hormone-replacement therapy. The solution could be as simple as eating a healthy diet and losing weight.
Hot flashes and extra pounds
About 80 percent of women say they suffer from hot flashes and night sweats during menopause, according to Bette J. Caan, DrPH, senior research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research. Nearly half of them deal with moderate or severe episodes, which doctors believe are caused when blood vessels close to the skin dilate.
Previous research has found that overweight women are more susceptible to more severe menopausal symptoms. Caan and her colleagues found that losing weight can relieve and even eliminate hot flashes and night sweats. A low-fat diet is a common-sense alternative to hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms, which have been associated with heart disease and breast cancer.
Lose weight, lose the night sweats
Researchers analyzed data collected from the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial. They evaluated more than 17,000 participants ages 50-79. None were on hormone-replacement therapy. Forty percent of those women followed a low-fat diet with 20 percent of calories from fat, including five servings of fruit and vegetables and six servings of whole grains a day. The remaining participants were the control group used for comparison. All participants reported on the frequency and severity of their menopausal symptoms.
When the study began, 26 percent had hot flashes and 27 percent had night sweats. Twelve months later, the women on a low-fat diet were three times more likely to lose weight than the control group. Those initially reporting moderate to severe menopausal symptoms who lost 22 pounds or more actually eliminated those symptoms. Those who had reported mild symptoms that lost 10 pounds or more also eliminated their symptoms. Even the women who gained weight on the low-fat diet reported fewer symptoms.
Fat stores heat, estrogen
An explanation for the elimination of symptoms may be as simple as losing fat, according to Caan. “Fat provides insulation,” she said in a report on the study published online in Menopause. “You lose it, and you don’t need to dissipate as much heat. A hot flash is a way to dissipate heat.”
Women may also suffer from hot flashes and night sweats during menopause because fat tissue stores estrogen, according to Jill Rabin, MD, of the Long Island Jewish Medical Center. After reviewing the study, she told WebMD, “the fat cell itself may be functioning in a way we didn’t realize to regulate temperature and produce substances that alter perception of body temperature.”
Salads instead of hormones
Regardless of the cause and effect, losing weight with a low-fat diet appears to be a low cost alternative to hormone-replacement therapy. Plus, there’s a bonus: reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes—illnesses that become more likely with hormone-replacement therapy.
For a population of women that is currently two-thirds overweight, that’s something to chew on.