Do hot flashes happen only during menopause?
They are more common — and often more intense — during menopause and perimenopause, but they can strike women of all ages. If you’re in your 20s or early 30s and you’re thinking, “Come to think of it, I DO experience some body temperature ups and downs (but mostly those uncomfortable ups) the week before my period…” you’re not wrong. Hot flashes in younger women tend to happen during the luteal phase, or the week right before your period, when estrogen is at its lowest — and when you’re feeling less than ideal to begin with. PMS might already be giving you insomnia and other uncomfortable symptoms. Add a few hot flashes to the mix, and its recipe for misery.
If you’re over 35, hot flashes might be a more regular part of your life. That’s because of the hormonal changes that start happening as you get closer to menopause. If you’re thinking, “Whoa, I’m still in my 30s! I’m not ‘close to menopause!’” you’re right. The average age of menopause is 51, so you have over a decade, give or take, until your final period. But perimenopause, which is characterized by uneven and unpredictable fluctuations in estrogen levels, starts around your mid-30s. So you might be feeling the unpleasant effects of those hormonal shifts right now, including hot flashes.
What are hot flashes?
A hot flash is a sudden feeling of intense heat in your body. It can feel like you’re happily going along, feeling perfectly normal, and then someone suddenly shoves you in a 120-degree sauna. The intensity often lasts only a few minutes, but it can be enough to wake you up at night, cause you to sweat through clothes at work, and otherwise be really uncomfortable. Hot flashes tend to be less intense for younger women, but they still disrupt quality of life.
Why do you have hot flashes?
Experts don’t know the exact physiology of hot flashes (despite decades of research on possible causes), but low estrogen is a factor. If it weren’t, estrogen replacement therapy for women in menopause — when estrogen production largely stops — wouldn’t ease hot flashes.
During perimenopause, estrogen can go up and down erratically — and when it is down, hot flashes happen. When estrogen levels fall off a cliff during menopause, hot flashes become a more consistent fixture in a woman’s life and can last for a few months to a few years (or not at all… some women don’t experience hot flash symptoms and researchers don’t know why. There also seems to be a cultural component: women in southeast Asia report hot flash symptoms far less often and women in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula seem not to have any hot flashes at all.)
In young women, estrogen is at its lowest the week before your period and that’s when hot flashes are likely to strike.
Some young women who experience hot flashes may suffer from a condition called primary ovarian insufficiency (POI). POI is sometimes used as a synonym for early menopause — and, indeed, they have similar symptoms — but they are not the same. In menopause, ovarian function stops all together. With POI, ovarian function becomes unpredictable. Sometimes the ovaries ‘turn on’ and produce estrogen. Sometimes they don’t. And when estrogen isn’t being produced, hot flashes strike. Experts don’t know exactly what causes POI.
What does low estrogen have to do with body temperature? Researchers suspect that estrogen communicates with the hypothalamus (your internal thermostat) about body temperature — and when estrogen is low, the hypothalamus doesn’t get the usual everything-is-good-here! signals about body temp. And, as estrogen dips, production of FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone) goes up, and those hormones dilate blood vessels, increase blood circulation, and contribute to that feeling of being hot and flushed.
What You Can Do to Keep Your Hormones Cool
My philosophy when it comes to easing hot flashes (and other period problems) is “put food first.” A woman’s first line of defense against erratic hormonal swings and persistent hormonal imbalances is to use food as medicine.
With that in mind, here are my top food, supplement, and lifestyle strategies for easing hot flash symptoms no matter your age:
Foods for Hot Flashes
Some specific foods can help you address the symptoms of low estrogen and hot flashes, including:
- Non-GMO soy products, like organic tofu or edamame. Soy is a phytoestrogen, or a natural plant-based estrogen, that can boost your overall levels and ease symptoms. Check out my recipe for easing hot flashes for a delicious way to use tofu.
- Flax seeds. Flax is a phytoestrogen, too. It is also powerfully anti-inflammatory, a good source of fiber, and a great food for boosting the health of the estrobolome (which is a microbial community in the gut that helps keep hormones balanced).
- Low-glycemic foods that keep blood sugar balanced. Think of foods high in healthy fats (like avocados, nuts, and seeds) and low in simple sugars (which includes most whole foods!). Research suggests that balanced blood sugar may be help keep hot flashes at bay.
Supplements for Hot Flashes
Fortify your food first approach with key supplements, including:
- Maca. This plant, which grows high in the Andes mountains, has been used for centuries for energy and health. Studies suggest that the plant acts as a “toner of hormonal processes” and may be especially helpful for easing perimenopause symptoms.
- Chasteberry (or Vitex). This plant helps boost progesterone and keep estrogen and progesterone in a healthy balance. It can make another excellent addition to your hot flash-fighting arsenal.
- Evening primrose oil. This oil may help counteract the vasomotor changes (blood vessel dilation) associated with lower estrogen.
Lifestyle changes for Hot Flashes
Make sure you’re not undermining your hot flash food and supplement strategy with hormone-disruptive lifestyle choices.
- Practice phase-based eating. Easing the symptoms of low-estrogen, like hot flashes, isn’t just about what you eat. It’s about when you eat. The foundation of the Flo Protocol is The Cycle Syncing Method™ and it is all about changing what you eat in each phase of your 28-day hormone cycle to support optimal hormone balance. This way of eating will not only help with hot flashes, but will also improve your energy, sex drive, and mood.
- Engage in phase-based exercise. Same principle as phase-based eating, this time with movement. When you sync how you move to your unique hormone needs during each phase of your cycle, you will experience fewer hormonal problems.
- Ditch caffeine. Research suggests that caffeine makes hot flashes and night sweats worse (not to mention that caffeine is bad for hormones in general).
- Work with a trusted healthcare practitioner. Hot flashes can be harder to get rid of than other symptoms. If you make food and lifestyle shifts and you still experience hot flashes, talk with a trusted healthcare provider to about your symptoms and what you’ve tried so far.
Always remember that once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making health choices that finally start to work for you. You can do this – the science of your body is on your side.
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