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Sweating is normal and a core part of how the body regulates its temperature. In a sauna or working out in the gym, sweating profusely is expected. Waking up sweating in the middle of the night is another matter altogether.
Night sweats can be defined as sweating in excess of that required by the body to regulate body temperature. Underlying health issues may be responsible for these episodes of considerable sweating in your sleep.
Night sweats can reduce sleep quality, concern a bed partner, and provoke serious discomfort. As a result, it is natural to want to know more about the causes of night sweats and how to resolve them.
What Causes Night Sweats?
The body’s system for temperature regulation is complex and influenced by multiple factors, which can make it hard in some cases to know exactly why a person experiences night sweats.
That said, common causes identified in research about night sweats include menopause, medications, infections, and hormone problems.
Hot flashes are considered to be a hallmark of menopause, affecting up to 85% of women. In most cases, hot flashes actually begin in the transition time before menopause, known as perimenopause, and can continue once a woman is postmenopausal.
Menopausal hot flashes normally last for a few minutes and can occur multiple times per day, including at night, when they can cause night sweats. It is common for hot flashes to continue occurring for several years, and some women experience them for more than two decades.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many women — up to 64% — report sleeping problems and higher rates of insomnia during perimenopause and menopause. While night sweats are not the only cause of these sleeping difficulties, they can contribute to poor sleep, especially when they are severe.
Certain medications are known to be associated with night sweats. These include some antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), steroids, and medicines taken to lower fevers, such as aspirin or acetaminophen, that may paradoxically cause sweating.
Changes in the endocrine system, which controls hormone levels in the body, can be connected to night sweats. Examples of hormone problems with links to night sweats include hyperthyroidism, diabetes and elevated blood sugar, and abnormal levels of sex hormones.
The part of the brain that regulates body temperature is known as the hypothalamus, and it is also involved in the endocrine system. Hypothalamic dysfunction may be an underlying issue related to hormone imbalances and night sweats.
Night sweats can be a symptom of certain types of cancer or a side effect of cancer treatments. Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy for cancer may provoke night sweats.
How to Stop Night Sweats
Night sweats can be worrying and bothersome, and they frequently are tied to serious sleep disruptions. As a result, it is natural for anyone dealing with night sweats to want to know how to avoid them and sleep more soundly.
The most effective treatment for night sweats will vary for any individual patient and should always be overseen by a health professional. Some potential treatment methods include modifications to environment and behavior, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication.
Changes to Your Environment
A standard approach to night sweats, especially those related to menopause, is to start by trying straightforward changes that can minimize the frequency and severity of night sweats. This may include changes to your sleep environment.
Sleep in a cooler bedroom: While a warmer bedroom is not the central cause of night sweats, it may facilitate or trigger them. Keeping the thermostat at a lower temperature can keep heat from building up around your body during the night.
Replace your mattress: Certain mattresses are more likely to retain heat than others, especially if they conform closely and restrict airflow. A cooling mattress can prevent heat retention and help you keep cool throughout the night. If you are experiencing menopause, a mattress that offers pressure relief and ample airflow may help reduce symptoms. A cooling mattress pad or topper is worth considering instead if you do not want to replace your mattress.
Invest in new bedding: In addition to assessing your current mattress, you may want to consider changing up your bedding. Lightweight, breathable sheets can help wick away moisture. You may also want to swap out a heavy duvet or comforter for a lighter quilt.
Wear breathable clothing: Tight-fitting clothes trap heat, so it is best to wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothes made with materials that are breathable and airy. Dressing in layers makes it easier to make adjustments to maintain a comfortable temperature.
Changes to Your Lifestyle
In addition to adjusting your sleep environment, you may want to consider changes to your daily habits to improve your overall health and sleep.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods: All of these things can cause spikes in body temperature and induce sweating. Avoiding them, especially in the evening, may cut down on night sweats.
Drink cold water: Having a small amount of cool water before going to bed may help you maintain a more pleasant temperature.
Maintain a healthy weight: Some research has identified a correlation between higher body weight and night sweats. Being overweight or obese can contribute to other health problems, including those that affect sleep, such as sleep apnea.
Several types of drugs, notably hormone therapies, can reduce night sweats, but these drugs can have significant side effects. A doctor is in the best position to discuss the benefits and downsides of any specific medication. Consult with your doctor for treatment recommendations and changes to your current medications.
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When to Be Concerned About Night Sweats
You should talk to your doctor if you have night sweats that are frequent or persistent. You should also mention them if they interfere with your sleep, negatively affect your daily life, or occur with other health changes.
Meeting with a doctor is important because they can help determine the most likely cause and work with you to create a treatment plan that takes your symptoms and overall health into account.
Xu, H., Thurston, R. C., Matthews, K. A., Bryce, C. L., Hays, R. D., Kapoor, W. N., Ness, R. B., & Hess, R. (2012). Are hot flashes associated with sleep disturbance during midlife? Results from the STRIDE cohort study. Maturitas, 71(1), 34–38.
Baker, F. C., de Zambotti, M., Colrain, I. M., & Bei, B. (2018). Sleep problems during the menopausal transition: Prevalence, impact, and management challenges. Nature and Science of Sleep, 10, 73–95.
Thurston, R. C., Luther, J. F., Wisniewski, S. R., Eng, H., & Wisner, K. L. (2013). Prospective evaluation of nighttime hot flashes during pregnancy and postpartum. Fertility and Sterility, 100(6), 1667–1672.
Ayers, B., Smith, M., Hellier, J., Mann, E., & Hunter, M. S. (2012). Effectiveness of group and self-help cognitive behavior therapy in reducing problematic menopausal hot flushes and night sweats (MENOS 2): A randomized controlled trial. Menopause (New York, N.Y.), 19(7), 749–759.
Arnardottir, E. S., Janson, C., Bjornsdottir, E., Benediktsdottir, B., Juliusson, S., Kuna, S. T., Pack, A. I., & Gislason, T. (2013). Nocturnal sweating--a common symptom of obstructive sleep apnoea: The Icelandic sleep apnoea cohort. BMJ Open, 3(5), e002795.
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Eric Suni has over a decade of experience as a science writer and was previously an information specialist for the National Cancer Institute.