Hormones, like younger siblings, are often blamed for everything ― sometimes, unfairly so. That said, hormones can be responsible for weight gain, weight loss, fatigue, pain, brain fog, fluctuating sex drives and more. They’re also responsible for the vasomotor symptoms (more commonly known as hot flashes and night sweats) that women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) experience, especially before and during menopause.
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You likely know the feeling ― the heat wave and pool of sweat that cascades over your whole body out of the blue. These furious flashes can affect how you feel, how you sleep and whether you’re mad, happy or some combination of the two (mappy?!).
Why do you get hot flashes?
Vasomotor symptoms happen because of changing estrogen levels. Estrogen, as you know, regulates many functions in your body, and plays a role in the development of secondary sexual characteristics (like breasts and hips). When interacting with other hormones, it also performs various functions, like giving women and people AFAB the ability to get pregnant and deliver children. As you age, those estrogen levels go up and down like a pogo stick.
This fluctuation interferes with your body’s ability to maintain a steady blood flow because changing levels of estrogen can cause your blood vessels to constrict or dilate. When the levels bounce around, it creates a not-so-rhythmic change of pace between the constricting and dilating of these vessels ― meaning, it’s very possible for you to experience surges of blood. That ― and the fact that estrogen has a role to play in regulating body temperature ― is what causes you to feel the heat.
And if you’re experiencing a lot of hot flashes, wellness expert Michael Roizen, MD, says you can use food to help calm them down.
Does diet affect hot flashes?
Your diet can definitely affect your hot flashes. Dr. Roizen recommends eating the “When Way,” which is eating only when the sun is up, with plenty of fruits and vegetables. This helps normalize blood flow, as fiber helps stabilize everything.
Or, if you’re looking for a specific new meal plan, the Mediterranean diet is a good long-term solution for helping control hot flashes. In one study, women who followed this diet ― with lots of vegetables, whole-grain noodles and olive oil ― were 20% less likely to experience hot flashes and night sweats.
Foods that help with hot flashes
If you don’t want to switch up your diet entirely, you can try incorporating certain foods to help keep those hot flashes away. By working with specific foods and cutting out others, you may feel some relief.
Dr. Roizen explains what foods to load up on:
Try eating soy-based products like:
In fact, according to Dr. Roizen, all edible beans have a positive effect, so make sure your diet is rich in them. Even better news: Large trials have shown that moderate amounts of soy don’t increase breast cancer risk.
These foods also contain phytoestrogens, which help mimic biological estrogen and may help control hormonal levels.
Other phytoestrogen-rich foods
Soy products aren’t the only foods that may balance your hormones. Research suggests it could be worth trying other phytoestrogen-rich foods for managing menopause symptoms. Flaxseed has been shown to have the highest amount of phytoestrogen, along with soybeans and tofu.
But there may even be other products in your pantry that could help with your hot flash symptoms during menopause. Other phytoestrogen-rich foods include:
- Sesame seeds.
- Dried beans.
- Mung beans.
- Wheat germ.
Fruits and vegetables
Getting a good dose of fruits and veggies is a must for anyone. Not only are they an essential element to the Mediterranean diet, but simply working more color into your plate can have many benefits, too.
One study found that a switch to a more veggie-filled diet helped with weight loss for menopausal women and in turn, relieved symptoms of hot flashes. While more research is needed, a switch to a more plant-based diet is a healthy step regardless.
Luckily the vegetable aisle provides endless options. Try incorporating more healthy greens into your diet like:
- Brussels sprouts.
While including more green to your diet is crucial, working in healthy fats is just as important. One study showed that foods with omega-3 fatty acids can provide some relief for hot flashes and night sweats. Hot tip: Replace your meat products with fatty fish and your butter with olive oil.
Examples of healthy fats that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Chia seeds.
- Hemp seeds.
Are some foods more chill than others? While more research is needed, some women have found relief with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Along with herbal therapies, there are certain “cooling foods” that may help with hot flashes due to menopause.
TCM practitioners recommend having a good mix of cold foods and warm foods to keep your body in balance. When your body is producing too much heat, you can try cooling foods to help.
Some examples of cooling foods to try include:
- Bok choy.
- Romaine lettuce.
Foods to avoid
Cutting out certain things from your diet can be as beneficial as adding things. When it comes to hot flashes, certain foods can make the symptom worse.
Here are a couple of foods to avoid when trying to manage your hot flashes:
A study found that caffeine intake is associated with more bothersome hot flashes. The caffeine in coffee can also elevate your heart rate and cause dehydration, which may intensify those feelings. You can always have decaf if you’re craving it, and green tea (in moderation) to help prevent caffeine withdrawal.
A glass of wine now and then won’t impact your symptoms too much. But if you have more than one drink a day, you may start to feel the heat. One study showed that alcohol increased the severity of hot flashes (it made them more intense) in menopausal women. Try cutting it down to one or fewer drinks a day.
Processed sugars and fats
Now there’s even more reason to cut down on processed foods. Symptoms of hot flashes in menopausal women have been linked to high blood pressure. Eating processed food tends to heighten your blood pressure, so you may see an increase in your symptoms of hot flashes.
Try limiting your intake on processed foods like:
- Baked goods.
- Sugary beverages.
- Fast foods.
- Fried foods.
- Butter and margarine.
When dealing with hot flashes, it’s important to listen to your body and know what foods may be triggering you. But to start with, there are certain ways to adjust your diet that can help you find relief from your symptoms. Of course, food can’t fix everything, so if your hot flashes are really bothering you, discuss them with your healthcare provider.
This article was partially adapted from the best-selling book “What to Eat When” by Michael F. Roizen, MD, and Micheal Crupain, MD, MPH, with Ted Spiker (©2018 National Geographic Books).