According to new research, keeping a healthy weight and quitting smoking before the age of 40 may substantially relieve the hot flashes and night sweats that often characterize menopause.
Although menopause is a normal, healthy part of life, physiological changes that can bring discomfort sometimes mark the transition.
According to the North American Menopause Society, hot flashes are "the most common menopause-related discomfort."
Scientists think that hot flashes are the result of changes in the brain's hypothalamus — the area that helps control the body's temperature.
When the hypothalamus "misfires," it sends signals to the blood vessels on the surface of the skin to dilate and disperse body heat because it mistakenly "thinks" the body is too warm.
Because of this effect on blood vessels, medical professionals often refer to hot flashes and night sweats as "vasomotor symptoms."
About 85% of menopausal females report experiencing hot flashes. What is more, approximately 55% of these individuals begin to experience hot flashes even before any other signs of menopause or before menstruation becomes irregular.
However, vasomotor symptoms are not necessarily unavoidable. New research suggests that quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight may help lessen these hallmarks of menopause.
Dr. Hsin-Fang Chung, from the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Australia, is the lead researcher of the new paper, which appears in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Being overweight, obese raises risk
Dr. Chung and team examined data from eight studies, summing up 21,460 females who were 50 years old, on average. The participants were from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan.
The research looked at associations between body mass index (BMI) and smoking, on the one hand, and the risk of vasomotor symptoms, on the other. The analysis also looked to see if the associations differed, according to menopausal stage.
At the start of the study, almost 60% of the women had vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flashes or night sweats.
Half of these participants were overweight, including 21% of them who had obesity, and 17% were smokers at the time of the study.
Overall, the analysis found that a higher BMI and smoking more and for a longer period of time were all linked with "more frequent or severe vasomotor symptoms."
Specifically, "Obese women have a nearly 60% higher risk of experiencing frequent or severe [vasomotor symptoms], compared [with] normal weight women," reports Dr. Chung.
Furthermore, "Women who smoke have more than 80% higher risk of experiencing frequent or severe [vasomotor symptoms], compared [with] women who have never smoked."
Finally, write the researchers, the analysis found that the results did indeed differ by menopausal status. Specifically, "Higher [BMI] was associated with increased risk of vasomotor symptoms in pre- and perimenopause but with reduced risk in postmenopause," they write.
Why quitting smoking is important
Dr. Chung further comments on the role of smoking in these associations.
"Smoking intensifies the effect of obesity and gives obese women who smoke more than three times the risk of experiencing frequent or severe [vasomotor symptoms], compared with women of normal weight who have never smoked."
Last author Gita Mishra, who is a professor of life course epidemiology at Queensland's School of Public Health, also comments on the findings and the impact of smoking.
"The risk of experiencing frequent or severe [vasomotor symptoms] was particularly high for women who smoked more than 20 cigarettes per day or smoked for more than 30 years."
Professor Gita Mishra
"This may be partly attributed to the anti-estrogenic effect of tobacco smoking," she explains.
"However, women who quit smoking before turning 40 have similar levels of risk to those who have never smoked," adds Prof. Mishra, so making the healthful decision of quitting smoking before then may have dramatic benefits.
"These findings encourage mid-life women to engage in health promotion programs, and emphasize the need to quit smoking and adopt weight management strategies before menopause," says Prof. Mishra.
"Waiting until the menopausal transition or post menopause is too late to achieve maximum benefit of these findings."