Getting personal from the get-go here, I used to experience night sweats on the regular, and the fact that I woke up as if I’d been for a dip, even in midwinter, made me think something might be up. It was - it turned out I had a rare inflammatory disease called sarcoidosis , but had I not mentioned the night sweats and a couple of other weird seemingly non-connected symptoms I’m not sure it would have been taken so seriously or treated so quickly. Now I know that if I get night sweats, I could be experiencing a flare-up, and it’s one of the first questions that a doctor who knows my history will ask.
Of course, waking up sodden can be linked to all sorts of conditions and circumstances, from hormonal fluctuations to fever to potential illness that may require further investigation, and from Nicola Chapman of Pixiwoo discussing night sweats as a result of Multiple Sclerosis to Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark relating her sleeplessness due to night sweats during the menopause , they’re more common than you might think.
We consulted Bupa Medical Director Dr Steve Iley to ask how to identify if you’re experiencing night sweats, rather than just waking up feeling warmer than average on a muggy night, and when it might be a good idea to visit your GP for a check-up.
The difference between 'night sweats' and waking up hot in bed
“Night sweats, or nocturnal hyperhidrosis, are quite different to waking up feeling hot. Someone suffering from night sweats may well actually wake up feeling cold rather than hot, for instance.
“For some, it may be the case that they sweat so much that it soaks the bed. The sweating is a result of a rise in body temperature but is not related to the surrounding environment, so not brought on by sleeping in a warmer room. It is due to the hypothalamus - the heat regulatory area in the brain- mistakenly perceiving that the body is too warm.”
Some common causes of night sweats in women
“There are many reasons why someone might suffer from night sweats. Night sweating could be a result of a neurological disorder, a side-effect of medication (particularly antidepressants , aspirin and some steroids) or due to a hormonal imbalance which can be triggered by pregnancy , the menopause and menstruation. It can also be an early indication of certain types of cancers such as lymphoma.”
Other potential causes of night sweats include obstructive sleep apnoea, which relates to interrupted breathing during sleep, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can be linked to diabetes , along with infections, fever, an overactive thyroid gland, some autoimmune conditions and HIV/Aids. It’s best not to panic or jump to Google induced conclusions if you’re experiencing night sweats- keep a diary of when you’re having them and book an appointment with your doctor if you’re concerned.
Night sweats during pregnancy, the menopause and menstruation
“Many women experience night sweats during their pregnancy, the menopause or when menstruating. This is due to them experiencing a hormonal imbalance that causes the area of the body which regulates temperature (the hypothalamus, as above) to think that it is hot, even if it is not. This triggers the body to sweat, which is of course how we typically cool down if our body temperature is raised. Try not to worry if you have the odd night sweat when you know you’re experiencing a hormonal shift- it’s very normal.”
When to seek the advice of a medical expert
“As there are so many reasons why someone experiences night sweats we would recommend that you seek medical advice if they start to experience them regularly so that your GP can establish the cause. Chances are it’s not serious, but as the triggers of night sweats can be so varied, it’s best to see a medical professional to check it out - don’t try to diagnose yourself.”
Lifestyle changes to reduce the incidence of night sweats
“As night sweats can be caused by a hormonal imbalance, dietary changes could have a positive impact. A diet based on healthy fats, such as avocado, coconut oil ; antioxidant-rich vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli; and lean protein such as grilled chicken can promote hormonal balance.”
“Exercise can help to improve the body's ability to regulate its own temperature which can reduce instances of night sweats. However, we’d recommend exercising earlier in the day (more than two hours before bedtime) in order to best prevent night sweat episodes.”
“Although switching to pyjamas made from cooler fabrics such as cotton or linen won’t prevent night sweats, they are more breathable, so will help make for a more comfortable night’s sleep.”
Along with avoiding vigorous exercise before bedtime, go easy on blood-vessel dilating alcohol and spicy foods, ensure bedding isn’t too heavy and that you’ve got a fan to hand if you do find that you feel overheated post-night sweat episode. If you sweat buckets during the day too, see our SOS page on sweating for practical medical advice. Lastly, stay hydrated, and schedule in lots of chill-out time before bed- stress can make night sweats all the more sodden.