Hot flashes are the most common complaint from women going through menopause. And for women who are breast cancer patients, the problem is often more acute. Surgery, chemotherapy and estrogen blocking medications can bring on hot flashes or make them worse if you already have them. And for women who must discontinue hormone replacement therapy, the instant onset of hot flashes and night sweats can severely impact quality of life.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can easily and safely employ to decrease the severity and frequency of hot flashes and night sweats. Everything I recommend here is non-estrogenic so while it is generally safe for breast cancer patients and survivors, you should always check with your oncologist before trying any new supplement.
First, a few notes on diet. I recently had a patient who stopped eating refined sugars for general health reasons, and her hot flashes nearly disappeared. Your mileage may vary on this one but there are clear health benefits from lowering sugar intake, so it may be worth a try. You might also try taking out white flour as well, as that can be a trigger. Some women find that caffeine can trigger hot flashes, and alcohol, especially that nightcap, can worsen night sweats. I know that many people are loathe to give up their beloved latte or their glass of wine with dinner, but try it for a week or two to see if the change has a positive impact.
Exercise can also be helpful for reducing hot flashes. One study found that exercise decreased hot flashes for 24 hours after exercise (even 30 minutes of moderate intensity walking may help you).
Some interesting new research into hot flashes has shown that estrogen is not the only factor in causing hot flashes. Brain chemistry has a lot to do with a woman's tendency to get overheated in menopause. Women with higher levels of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine have more hot flashes than those with lower levels.
So how can you lower your norepinephrine? Some medications work, including certain antidepressants and blood pressure medications. But another method is simply deep breathing. Some studies have shown benefit of practicing simple deep breathing techniques twice daily. Sit down, relax, and take ten deep breaths, counting 10 seconds for inhalation and 5 seconds for exhalation. This is a simple and quick remedy that you can do almost anywhere!
Another possible solution is taking a high-quality fish oil supplement. A couple of small studies have shown a decrease in hot flash frequency and severity in women taking fish oil (amounts studied vary but I generally recommend 3, 1000mg capsules daily). It’s thought that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils may reduce hot flashes by helping stabilize nerve membranes or by modulating neurotransmitters in the brain. Additionally, increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake provides other health benefits, including decreasing risk of heart disease. However, it’s especially important to check with your doctor as a fish oil supplement may not be a good idea for people with bleeding disorders or other conditions.
Note: you should steer away from herbal remedies that claim to help with hot flashes - they may contain estrogenic compounds that are dangerous for women who have had breast cancer. I find that identifying diet (and lifestyle) triggers for hot flashes and removing those triggers is often the very best solution and one that has other positive health benefits in the long run.