​Nutrition – cancer treatment, hot flushes & weight gain

Tuesday 08 May 2018

I am continuing the theme from last week when we looked at changes in taste and smell that can result from chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. This week I thought that I would look at coping with hot flushes and weight gain, which are problems that many people can suffer from, both men and women. They can occur particularly as a result of taking hormone related drugs after developing a hormone related cancer.

Hot flushes are described as ‘sudden and spontaneous’ and usually very disruptive and uncomfortable. Many people also experience sleep problems, a racing heart, and feelings of anxiety with the hot flush.

The reason for hot flushes is not absolutely clear but what is known is that the part of the brain called the hypothalamus (that senses and controls body temperature amongst many other roles) receives the incorrect messages, due to a fall in oestrogen or testosterone levels. The hypothalamus thinks that the body is overheating and creates a response designed to cool the body down. Therefore more blood flows to the skin causing the redness and the sweat glands over work causing the sweating. The positive side of the hot flushes is they are an indication that the drugs are working and that hormone levels are dropping.

NOTE; During the normal menopause many women turn to herbal supplements to help relieve the symptoms, such as black cohosh or red clover. But if the hot flushes are due to the hormone related drugs after cancer then it is not advisable to use these supplements as research is very limited on their effects on cancer cells. It is better to try and avoid the triggers that may aggravate the situation.

Common triggers for hot flushes

  • Drinking too much alcohol especially wine.
  • Drinking too much caffeine. This speeds up the metabolism which creates heat in the body.
  • Eating spicy foods especially in the evening.
  • Eating large meals and excess sugar, both of which increase body temperature.
  • Low blood sugar. Make sure that you do not miss meals as this will encourage a low blood sugar. This leads to cravings for sugar and hunger that may lead to indiscriminate eating in a bid to satisfy the appetite. This is a very familiar scenario when we get home from work. Many people tell me they just open the fridge and stand and eat whatever comes to hand first before they have taken their coats off!!! This is because the low blood sugar drives the body to eat.
  • Avoid sugar and refined processed foods as these will initially cause a spike in blood sugar that will crash several hours later. It is at this point the hot flush may hit.
  • Having hot drinks may bring on a hot flush.
  • Smoking is a known cause.
  • Stress and stressful situations can also bring on hot flushes.

What can help

  • Make sure that you eat enough protein at each main meal as protein foods help to stabilize blood sugar levels.
  • Some people eat phyto oestrogen rich foods like soya and its products, flax seeds and pulses in a bid to control hot flushes. Soya has been a very controversial subject for many years and divided opinion among the nutrition experts but new research would indicate that these foods may be worth considering.
  • There are several medications on offer that may help relieve hot flushes which you will need to discuss with your consultant. Some people have found that taking evening primrose oil supplements helps but they may take several months to take effect. It is regarded as safe.
  • Also Vitamin E, selenium and vitamin B6 have been reported to help but it is important to check with your cancer specialist before taking these and certainly do not exceed the recommended amount.
  • Finally I do know that some people find that sage tea really helps. Put 1 teaspoon of dried sage in a cup of boiling water, infuse for minute or two, strain and sip. You could try this 2-3 times a day. This is generally considered safe by most oncologists but as always check with your own doctor first before trying.

If any of you reading this have suffered from hot flushes and found a way that helps, you might like to share this as your idea may help others.

Weight gain during treatment

The only point that I would like to add to this is that when you are going through chemotherapy or radiotherapy it is not such a good idea to ‘diet’, but try and keep your weight stable. Do this by eating a balanced healthy eating regime, avoiding all the processed, saturated fat and sweet types of foods that we know are not nutritious. Focus very much on the Mediterranean style of eating.

According to the American Cancer Society there are several reasons for this advice. While undergoing treatment the body needs sufficient nutrients to help with the healing process. This is because chemotherapy is designed to kill off rapidly dividing cells, which not only includes the cancer cells but also the cells of the digestive tract and hair. The body needs adequate energy in the form of calories and protein to replace these. Weight loss during this time may make it harder for this healing to happen. Dieting may force your body into using lean muscle mass as well as fat stores to get the building blocks that it needs to make new tissues. Slimming while on chemo may also affect your stamina and energy and ability to support the immune system. So it is best to go for a balanced, healthy diet during treatment.

Blog originally written by Caroline October 2014 – updated April 2020

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