Menopause Night Sweats

July 20, 2010

Hot flashes are the most common menopause symptom. But hot flashes have a co-conspirator, so it seems, a symptom that makes its visitations only while you are asleep. This nighttime version of the hot flash goes by the name of night sweats.

Night sweats awaken you in the midst of a sound sleep. Your heart is pounding, your body feels clammy and cold and your bed linens are soaked with sweat. You feel agitated and uncomfortable and you are annoyed that once again, your sleep has been interrupted. What causes menopausal women to suffer from night sweats and what can be done to rectify this situation?

Complicated Interactions: Menopause Hormones

The symptoms known as hot flashes and night sweats are both caused by a complicated series of interactions that have to do with changing levels of the female hormone estrogen; the part of the brain that serves to regulate body temperature (hypothalamus); the important brain chemical known as norepinephrine; specific brain receptors; and the sweat glands and blood vessels of your body.

When a woman goes into menopause, her levels of estrogen fluctuate. The hypothalamus, which is responsible for regulating body temperature is affected by the fluctuating estrogen levels and may be thrown off balance. This is a bit like having your thermostat on the blink.

Changing Levels of Estrogen

The hypothalamus may sense changing levels of estrogen as an increase in body temperature. In order to compensate and cool down the body, the hypothalamus triggers a series of events which include blood vessel dilation to allow heat to dissipate—this will be sensed as a hot flash—and activation of the sweat glands—felt as a sudden drenching of the body with perspiration. Just as the hypothalamus intended, your body has been cooled down. You awaken soaked and cold and from the effort of this sudden cool-down, your heart is speeding and you feel anxious.

Experts such as endocrinologist JoAnn Manson, MD, MPH, PhD, a professor of women's health at the august Harvard Medical School, believe that up to 80% of menopausal women experience hot flashes and night sweats to one degree or another. Of this number, 15%-20% have symptoms so severe they qualify for medical treatment if they so desire.

There are some tips and tricks for keeping away those night sweats, however. Here are some tricks of the trade:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that engaging in the type of deep breathing known as paced or relaxation breathing, can help alleviate hot flashes and night sweats. This type of breathing can also help lull you back to sleep after you have an episode of night sweats.

Keep some paper and a writing utensil next to your bed. After you have a night sweat or during the following morning, take some time to record any changes in your behavior before you experienced your symptoms. Did you eat spicy food? Did you consume alcoholic beverages? Did you have a rare cigarette? All of these behaviors are thought to exacerbate night sweats. Recording your triggers can help you spot a possible pattern so you can avoid such behavior in future.

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