Hot flashes are the most common complaint among menopausal women.
Between 60 to 85% of North American women experience these "personal summers" at some point in their menopausal years.
It's rare that hot flashes interfere with daily life, however, turning bright red and sweating for no particular can be very embarassing in certain situations. Hot flashes can also disrupt sleep and be accompanied by headaches or nausea.
But what exactly is a hot flash? Surprise, surprise. Like many other female-only issues, hormones are at the root of hot flashes.
During menopause your brain and body are trying to adjust to lower estrogen levels that impact the balance and function of other hormones like follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH).
This is a really big adjustment that throws the thermostat of the body, the hypothamalus, for a loop. In fertile women, low estrogen and progesterone levels signal the hypthamalus to send a message to the pituitary gland to start stimulating the ovaries with FSH and LH because its time to ovulate.
But, in women who are ceasing to menstruate, the ovaries cannot respond to the FSH and LH as well. At first, the hypothamalus doesn't understand this and thinks the pituitary gland isn't getting the message. So it gets a little distracted sending more messages to raise FSH and LH and get the ovaries to release an egg.
Distracted and confused, the hypothalamus sometimes makes mistakes in the thermoregulation of the body – and a hot flash results. While a drop in estrogen is completely natural in the later years of a woman's life, the associated problems can be prevented or diminished. (Case in point, hot flashes are so rare in some Asian cultures that there is no word for “hot flash” in Japanese.)
The Traditional Asian diet is high in soy foods and their isoflavones and low in saturated fat from animal foods. Researchers and nutritionists agree that this is the main reason why hot flashes, and breast cancer, occur at much lower rates in these countries.
The Standard American Diet, on the other hand, promotes dramatic hormonal changes with high amounts of animal fats, trans fats, sugar, alcohol and stimulants like caffeine.
All of these foods can make hot flashes worse. Source: Leslie Beck's Nutrition Guide to Menopause by Leslie Beck, RD. (2003)