(Health.com) -- Overweight women who experience hot flashes -- the uncomfortable flushing and sweating spells that accompany menopause -- may be able to cool those symptoms by losing weight, a new study suggests.
"If you're a woman who is overweight or obese, you can substantially improve your hot flashes by losing weight through diet and exercise," says Alison Huang, M.D., the lead author of the study and a professor of internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
"Weight loss isn't just something that will benefit your long-term health 10, 20, or 30 years from now," she adds. "It can make a real difference in your symptoms and quality of life right now."
Previous research has shown that women with higher body-mass indexes tend to experience worse hot flashes. Until now, however, few studies have tried to measure the immediate effect that weight loss has on symptoms.
In the new study, which was published in the "Archives of Internal Medicine," Huang and her colleagues re-analyzed data from a study that included about 150 overweight and obese menopausal women who were experiencing urinary incontinence as well as troublesome hot flashes.
Roughly two-thirds of the women were assigned to an intensive program designed to help them lose up to 9 percent of their body weight. The program included at least 40 minutes of moderate exercise per day, a reduced-calorie diet (no more than 1,500 calories daily), and weekly counseling sessions that provided nutrition tips.
Six months later, the women who participated in the weight-loss program were more than twice as likely as the women in the control group to have experienced an improvement in their hot flash symptoms.
And it wasn't enough to just get more exercise or cut calories -- only weight loss itself was linked to fewer hot flash symptoms. For each 11 pounds that a woman lost, she was roughly one-third more likely than women who did not lose weight to experience a decline in the severity or frequency of hot flashes.
Hot flashes (also known as "hot flushes") aren't merely a nuisance. They can diminish a woman's quality of life, and they've been linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and insomnia, according to Huang.
"Once upon a time, many doctors and researchers did not take hot flashes seriously as a health problem," she says. "But we now know that these symptoms make a real difference in women's ability to lead active, fulfilling lives during menopause."
It's unclear why losing weight would reduce hot flashes. Overweight women tend to have higher levels of estrogen, which could aggravate hot flashes, and some experts have suggested that body fat may prevent women from cooling off during a flash.
Huang's study did have some important weaknesses. Because the women in the study were incontinent the results may not apply to all women, and the researchers surveyed the women about their hot flash symptoms just twice, at the beginning and end of the study.
In addition, a greater percentage of women in the control group dropped out of the study, which could have skewed the results.
Although slimming down is always a good idea for anyone who's overweight, weight loss may not be a fast or effective enough remedy for women who are suffering through hot flashes, says Dr. Lila Nachtigall, M.D., a menopause expert and professor of ob-gyn at New York University's Langone Medical Center.
"I see these women every day, and they are desperate," she says. "It's not fair to say losing weight over six months will help, when they need to treat their flushes and treat them within a week or two."
Low doses of prescription medications, including antidepressants, can help relieve hot flashes in overweight women who need immediate relief, Nachtigall says, as can hormone therapy, which replaces estrogen and other hormones that decline during menopause.
The safety of hormone therapy has been questioned in recent years, following several studies that linked long-term treatment to an increased risk of breast cancer, stroke, and other health problems. But short-term, low-dose hormone therapy is still appropriate for many women experiencing menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, Nachtigall says.
Women who decide to take hormones for menopause hot flashes should do so at the lowest dose and for the shortest period of time possible, experts say. Hot flashes may return when hormone therapy is halted.
Copyright Health Magazine 2011