By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
There’s no good way to wake up in the middle of the night, but soaked in sweat is one of the worst. Not only do you need to get up and change clothes, but you may need to swap out your bedding, too—the absolute last thing anyone wants to do at 2 o’clock in the morning!
Though frustrating (and tiring, if you lose enough sleep), occasional night sweats are usually nothing to worry about. But if you’re waking up soaked on a regular basis, it would be a good idea to get checked out by your doctor. Sweating at night can also be a sign that something in the body is out of whack and needs attention.
Whenever patients told me they had night sweats, for example, I always looked twice for signs of an overactive autonomic nervous system or a silent cardiovascular problem that I hadn’t previously detected.
Let’s take a look at some of the other reasons why you may be having night sweats, and what you can do about them.
What Causes Night Sweats?
The thing to remember about sweating is that the body does it involuntarily, usually in response to some sort of imbalance. In the case of night sweats, a common reason is falling asleep under too many blankets or sleeping in a room that’s too warm. When your body temperature goes too high, your internal thermostat responds by dilating your blood vessels and opening your sweat glands—all in the name of getting you back to normal.
Sometimes, though, more serious issues can trigger night sweats, and this is why you need to take them seriously. These problems can include—
- Thyroid disease and other hormone imbalances (including puberty, pregnancy, and menopause)
- Silent cardiovascular disease
- Anxiety and autonomic hyperactivity
- Cancers like lymphoma and leukemia
There are even some prescription medications that can also cause night sweats, with antidepressants and diabetes medications topping the list.
Night Sweats in Menopause: Hot Flashes While You Sleep
Another common cause of night sweats (for older women) is menopause. These episodes are basically hot flashes that happen while you’re asleep.
Somewhat surprisingly, medicine has yet to figure out exactly why hot flashes happen. But since sweating is controlled by the endocrine system, it makes sense that this response would go a little bit haywire as hormone levels fluctuate. It also would explain why, once women progress through menopause and their hormone levels reset, many of them stop having both hot flashes and night sweats altogether.
Though coping with hot flashes and night sweats can be stressful, here’s a little good news about them. (Really!)
The simple fact that you can sweat frequently and easily means that your blood vessels are clean and healthy.
Blood vessels that are starting to harden from cardiovascular disease—which women are at significantly higher risk for as they go through menopause—don’t expand and contract as readily. So, frequent sweating can actually be a sign that your heart and arteries are in good shape. In fact, one study found that having night sweats in addition to hot flashes during menopause reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by almost 30 percent over the next 20 years. Sounds like a bearable trade-off to me!
How to Prevent and Manage Night Sweats
For both men and women, minimizing and preventing night sweats is really about figuring out what triggers your episodes and then adjusting your habits accordingly.
If your night sweats are more likely to happen after eating certain foods, cut them out of your diet. If anxiety is an issue, experiment with stress management techniques like meditation, or sleep grounded. (Earthing, as it’s also called, helps slow the stress response and balance your autonomic nervous system. I went through a phase when I had night sweats, and they stopped when I started sleeping on a grounding sheet.) If you think your weight is a contributing issue, work with your doctor to create a sustainable exercise plan that will help you burn a few extra calories.
Most of all, though, I would try to tackle the problem through your diet. Eating healthier will address a number of the issues that cause night sweats.
Stop Night Sweats the PAMM Way
A good way to start is with my Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet.
PAMM emphasizes whole, fresh, and organic fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, as well as low-glycemic carbohydrates and healthy fats (especially extra virgin olive oil). I like this approach because it greatly reduces the amount of sugar, omega-6 fats, and other inflammation-causing toxins we typically consume, while increasing our intake of antioxidant nutrients. This helps bring all of the systems in the body into better balance—and when the body is balanced, you’re going to experience fewer things that can trigger night sweats.
Here are a few examples—
- When the body is less inflamed, your immune system doesn’t have to work as hard at repairing damage caused by inflammation. This means it has more resources available to fight infectious agents that can cause night sweats.
- When your diet includes less processed and fast foods, you consume fewer chemicals that may interfere with thyroid function, another possible cause of night sweats.
- Eating less sugar will help keep blood sugar levels on a more even keel, reducing the likelihood of hypoglycemia and diabetes, and possibly reducing the need for blood sugar medications— also all causes of night sweats.
I think you can see where I’m going here.
For the ladies out there, the right diet can help ease the discomfort of menopause, if not prevent night sweats that come with it. PAMM will also help you cut back on things like caffeine, which can be a problem for a lot of women going through menopause.
Don’t Forget the Olive Oil
Before I wrap up, I want to mention one more thing about eating the PAMM way: Make sure, whenever possible, to incorporate extra virgin olive oil into your meals. It’s the primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet, and every week it seems another study is published about olive oil’s health benefits. In fact, I think it’s the “secret sauce” that makes this way of eating so healthy!
So, make sure a bottle finds its way to your table.
Night sweats are just one health issue that the PAMM diet can help. Make out your shopping list today, and you’ll feel healthier and more energetic in no time. And don’t be surprised if you get a better night’s sleep, too!
- Svartberg J, et al. Vasomotor symptoms and mortality: the Rancho Bernardo study. Menopause. 2009 Sep–Oct;16(5):888–91.
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