If you've ever had hot flushes, you'll know how uncomfortable they can feel. The sudden intense burning up feeling, the prickly skin sensation, the profuse sweating and tell-tale facial redness, not to mention the heart palpitations can be thoroughly unpleasant.
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Three out of every four women in the UK experience them during menopause as a consequence of declining oestrogen levels, which are thought to upset the body's natural thermostat.
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Thankfully, hot flushes are very treatable. Your doctor can advise you on suitable drug treatments, but what you eat – or don't eat – can actually have a big impact.
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“Food is a major contributing factor for many women when it comes to hot flushes,” says GP and TV doctor Dawn Harper. Here's what to include in your diet – and what to avoid.
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Eat more fruit, veggies and wholegrains
Strong scientific evidence shows that following a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruit, veggies and wholegrains can minimise hot flushes.
A major study of 17,000 menopausal women, which was published in the medical journal Menopause, found that participants who ate lots of fruit, veggies and wholegrains experienced fewer hot flushes than those who consumed poorer, less nutrient-packed diets.
If you're not getting your five-a-day, it's definitely worthwhile upping your fruit, veg and wholegrain intake to help banish those hot flushes.
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Boost the soy in your diet
Though the jury is out, several studies suggest that a diet rich in soy products like tofu, edamame beans and soy milk may help reduce or even eliminate hot flushes in menopausal women.
The plant oestrogens in soy are thought to regulate levels of female hormone in the body, thereby reducing hot flushes. For instance, the Association of British Dietitians cites studies that examined the prevalence of hot flushes in Japanese and Chinese women who follow soy-based diets. They found that only 20% of these women experienced symptoms, compared to 75% of menopausal women in the West.
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Add flax seeds to your shopping list
A number of studies have looked into the effects of flax seeds on women during menopause, and found that a diet rich in these plant oestrogen-rich seeds can help minimise hot flushes.
“Flax seeds help to balance hormone levels and can reduce hot flushes in particular,” says registered dietitian Helen Bond.
Research indicates that eating four tablespoons of flax seeds a day can ease hot flush symptoms. Try them sprinkled over cereal or muesli, blended into smoothies or baked in breads and cakes.
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Stock up on strawberries
Many women swear by eating strawberries to help limit hot flushes. And for very good reason. The tasty berry is bursting with plant oestrogens that may help regulate levels of oestrogen in the body. Strawberries are also rich in vitamin C, which is known to play an important role in balancing hormones, and they contain five of the B-complex vitamins, as well as vitamins K and E, all crucial nutrients that help control hormonal levels, which may be out of whack pre, during and post menopause.
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Beware of spicy food
Major trigger number one, spicy food sets off hot flushes in many menopausal women.
The capsaicin in chillies for example dilates blood vessels, as does the piperine in black pepper – these chemicals give many spicy foods their characteristic heat and burning sensation.
If you're prone to flushing, overly dilated vessels will tend to magnify the symptoms, and the sensation of heat you get from the spice will only make things worse.
If you can't do without your hot curries, chilli con carne or jerk chicken, go easy on the spice, drink lots of water and eat the dish with a cooling yoghurt sauce.
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Cut down on alcohol
Booze, which also dilates the blood vessels, is another notorious hot flush culprit. Studies have demonstrated that having more than one alcoholic drink a week and daily drinking in particular significantly raises the risk of hot flushes in menopausal women, increasing their frequency and severity.
Not all women are susceptible but if you find alcohol makes you flush, limiting your intake is of course a wise move. Some women find they can tolerate a glass of wine or half a lager with food, especially if they match the alcoholic drink with a glass of water.
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Hold off on the caffeine
You may want to go for the decaf iced option next time you visit your local coffee shop. “Caffeine tends to exacerbate hot flushes,” says GP Arun Ghosh.
Caffeine, which is also found in tea, chocolate and some soft drinks, has a stimulant effect and US researchers have found that as many as two out of three women during and post menopause are prone to caffeine-induced hot flushes.
Hot drinks can also set off flushing, so a piping hot espresso makes for a double whammy trigger. If you can't do without your daily hit, try to limit your intake to one caffeinated drink a day, the cooler, the better.
Watch your sugar intake
Spiking blood sugar levels that result from an excess of sugar in the diet can worsen hot flushes. The heightened sugar levels in the body initiate a stress response, which in turn can trigger a hot flush. If you've got a sweet tooth, cutting down on the white stuff is key, especially if you think it could be a trigger.
Easier said than done we know, but ditching the sugar could make all the difference. In any case, it's advisable to stick to the new World Health Organization guidelines, which recommend no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day.
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