In ancient times, when women reached menopause, they were known as wise women. Because menstrual fluid was considered to contain vital powers, a woman was said to attain wisdom when she retained her blood for a year or more. While we can only speculate on how these women weathered their wise years, we can assume they relied upon foods and herbs rather than prescription drugs to see them through. Today, hot flashes are one of the most common menopausal symptoms, affecting 70 percent to 85 percent of Western women. Caused by fluctuating estrogen levels, a hot flash is a sudden heat sensation in the face, scalp, and chest, lasting from one to several minutes, often accompanied by redness, sweating, nausea, chills, and increased heart rate. Some women suffer such severe discomfort that they turn to hormone replacement therapy. Others, including Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, author of Hot Times (Avery, 2005), view menopause as “an awe-inspiring time for women to nurture themselves, with food being a crucial part of the cycle.”
Help from phytoestrogens
Start your hot-flash strategy by knowing which “foods to choose and [which] foods to lose,” says Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, author of The Change of Life Diet & Cookbook (Avery, 2004). “Since caffeine, alcohol, and hot or spicy foods are likely triggers for flashes, they’re generally the foods to lose.”
There are hundreds of good foods to choose, beginning with phytoestrogens—plant foods containing estrogenlike properties that regulate hormones and fight premature aging by preventing free radical damage to cells. Your kitchen is probably stocked with foods that contain these helpful compounds: apples, beans, broccoli, carrots, citrus, onions, pears, spinach, and squash, to name a few.
Magee calls flaxseed “the most powerful plant on the planet.” Why? Because flax contains phytoestrogenic compounds called lignans, antioxidant and anticancer agents shown to produce positive hormone changes in women, alleviating hot flashes. Rich in dietary fiber, flax eliminates excess estrogen from the body, possibly preventing colon and breast cancers.
It even stabilizes cholesterol levels and is high in estrogen-taming omega-3 fatty acids (for more omega-3 food sources, see “Anti-flash Fats,” page 68). Magee, who adds flax to smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, soups, and baked goods, promotes 1 tablespoon a day as a safe, effective dose.
Gittleman ranks flaxseed as the number-one defense for “power surges,” her term for hot flashes. She begins each day with her “Long-Life Cocktail”: 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed stirred into 1 ounce unsweetened cranberry juice and 7 ounces water (if you like, add 3 drops stevia herbal extract to sweeten).
It’s important to eat flaxseed ground; whole seeds pass right through your system. Buy whole seeds to grind in a coffee grinder. For optimal freshness, store flaxseed in the freezer.
What about soy?
Soy products, abundant in natural foods stores, include tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk, soy nuts, and soy protein powders. What’s it all about? In a word, isoflavones: phytoestrogens that may stabilize hormones, lower cholesterol, and protect against cancer, strokes, osteoporosis, and cognitive decline.
Some researchers claim soy depresses thyroid function or increases breast cancer risk in menopausal women. However, according to Mark Messina, PhD, president of Nutrition Matters Inc., a nutrition consulting company in Port Townsend, Washington, human trials overwhelmingly show that neither soy nor isoflavones adversely affect thyroid function, at least in healthy women. “Soy may increase the thyroid medication dose needed by hypothyroid women, but this is not unusual; even fiber supplements have a similar effect,” he says. “In any case, there is no reason for hypothyroid women to avoid soy foods.” As for breast cancer, Messina says evidence suggests eating soy during adolescence actually helps protect women against developing the disease later in life. “There is controversy, however, about whether soy foods might be contraindicated for women with existing breast cancer,” he says. “Women with breast cancer should talk to their oncologist about soy consumption.” For healthy adults, he recommends two to three servings a day (one serving equals 1 cup of soy milk or 4 ounces of tofu).
For Gittleman, the jury is still out on soy. Touting it as “too much of a good thing,” she says 1 in 5 people has soy allergies and notes that unfermented soy products are often processed. However, purer, fermented soy products, such as miso and tempeh, provide good nutrients “in small doses”—and can relieve hot flashes, she says.
Whether or not your regimen includes soy, Magee recommends eating a variety of whole foods and keeping a food diary to heighten awareness of your hot-flash triggers and alleviators. And how you eat may be as important as what you eat. Because large meals can raise body temperature, eat small meals throughout the day to keep you cooler. Another remedy is to keep a glass of ice chips nearby to suck on—a cool-down you can get to in a flash.
Deborahann Smith has followed a vegetarian, whole-foods diet since she was 15. She looks forward to her first power surge.