It’s 5.35am on a Friday and I have woken up dripping sweat and unable to fall back to sleep. This is not unusual; typically, it happens between 4-6 nights a week. Sometimes it's every night. My pyjamas and bedlinen get soaked, enveloping my clammy body.
My wet little secret started around two years ago sporadically, and settled in for good one year later. I suffer with depression and anxiety and when I first took this problem to my GP and asked if it could be a side-effect of my medication (sertraline and beta blockers), it was quickly dismissed as stress/anxiety collateral. I accepted the answer then and moved on. But not even two months later, I was tired of swimming in my bed and the consecutive sleepless nights. I was determined to find the root cause and, most importantly, a solution.
I started by typing "night sweats" into Google. The results were predictably disconcerting. Menopause and cancer are pointed to as the usual underlying conditions for night sweating. As a 31-year-old woman, the thought of early menopause is far from exciting. As for cancer, the common types associated with night sweats are lymphoma and leukaemia, although carcinoid tumours and adrenal tumours have also been linked.
The NHS describes night sweats as "when you sweat so much that your night clothes and bedding are soaking wet, even though where you're sleeping is cool." It also says these can be caused by menopause, anxiety, medication, hypoglycaemia, alcohol or drug use, and hyperhidrosis. If you tick the box for one or more of the above, you can start building your own Olympic pool.
To begin, I tried a few of the suggested solutions. I tried sleeping with more clothing, less clothing, no clothing. I tried 100% cotton pyjamas, to no avail. Tip: Forget what your mum told you about natural fabrics; cotton will keep you wet for hours.
I kept a towel next to me to lay over my drenched sheet. I bought a thermo-regulating duvet that had been developed for NASA. Unfortunately, it did not live up to expectations.
I spent weeks researching sweat wicking pyjamas but everything I found in the UK was aimed at menopausal women. I ended up buying a pair from LiveBetterWithMenopause that cost £59.99. I am petite and ordered a small (they only offer S, M and L) but the trousers fell down my legs and I needed to tie a hairband onto the last elastic band to keep them up. The fabric is okay but I can’t say these pyjamas have made sleeping more comfortable.
In the UK, there is a brand called Cucumber Clothing which uses patented moisture wicking fabrics, but at £49 for a vest top it feels prohibitively expensive, particularly when you're buying out of necessity rather than luxury. Bamboo fabric is also said to be helpful, although I've yet to give it a try. The problem is that most sweaty nightwear brands seem to be based in America and oh how those shipping costs and taxes add to the bill.
As well as all the unpleasantness that comes with severe night sweats, you can forget about snuggling too. My husband builds a duvet wall between us because, he says, I’m a human oven. Interestingly, despite the sweating, I feel cold.
I often wake up and want to cry in despair. My side of the bed is wet and cold, and the interrupted sleep means I feel sluggish and tired the next day. I sometimes fear going to sleep because I know a lot of sweating awaits me.
In search of further answers, I spoke to Dr Sweta Rai, a consultant dermatologist of the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD). She explained: "In medicine what we perceive to be night sweats, which are worrying sweats, are the night sweats which are associated with weight, not having an appetite, and are usually associated with a medical condition such as type of lymphoma."
She continued: "If you are having nights sweats and it is occurring frequently, you must go to your GP and you must have yourself checked out. They will probably do a full skin exam, lymph tests, and they’ll ask you about your appetite, they’ll ask you about your general health. Secondly, especially as a millennial, you live in a pressurised society in which most of us are time poor, trying to do many things at once, as a result of that I think a lot of people suffer with anxiety and depression. Mental health issues, stress, all of that, can be associated."
Dr Sweta also says there are certain supplements (vitamin B3, for example) that may be causing people to become excessively sweaty.
Message received – If you are suffering from excessive sweating during the night, it's crucial that you get yourself checked. If you have been to the GP already and your tests come back clear, then it is possible that you suffer from hyperhidrosis. According to BAD, hyperhidrosis means excessive sweating. "It can be localised or affect the whole face and body. Sweating is controlled by the brain, which sends signals along nerves called 'sympathetic nerves' to the small sweat glands in the skin. These nerves are part of the 'autonomic nervous system' which controls many unconscious body functions." The condition is estimated to affect 2 million people in the UK.
There are two types of hyperhidrosis: localised symmetrical hyperhidrosis and generalised hyperhidrosis. The first type is the most common and affects areas like the hands, feet, armpits and face; its cause is unknown. The latter, which includes excessive night sweats, affects the whole body and can be a sign of a hormonal condition (like menopause), infection, cancer, anxiety or a side-effect of medication. Dr Sweta tells me I am likely to have generalised hyperhidrosis caused by the antidepressants I take, and exacerbated by my localised hyperhidrosis, which has followed me around since my teenage years.
And I'm not alone. Aminia, a 31-year-old project manager, started suffering from night sweats in autumn 2018 and believes it to be a side-effect of the antidepressants she takes. She says her experience is "Quite awful. Sometimes it’s just a bit more sweating (still unpleasant enough), other times it’s like someone threw a bucket of water over me. My whole side of the bed is wet, I need to change pjs and bed and duvet side to be able to go back to sleep."
Thirty-five-year-old art director Roxanne began experiencing night sweats around three years ago, and sought medical advice: "I asked my GP about it and he asked me if I had any other symptoms. When I said I didn't, he then didn't seem very bothered about it. He sent me for blood work tests, but nothing unusual was found out of those and that was that." I ask how it affects her quality of life. "It’s not too disruptive, compared to what some of my friends experience," she says. "I think it would be more of an issue if I had a partner next to me, as that would be a bit off-putting for them perhaps. It doesn't wake me up too much. More of a slight annoyance than a big problem in my life. More washing to do!"
While we know that sweating is connected to the autonomic nervous system, there are parts of the sweating pathways that we are still beginning to understand. Additionally, sweating is associated with emotional reactions and what triggers hyperhidrosis in one person and not another is still poorly understood, especially when concerned with mental health conditions. Sweating helps to regulate body temperature, and is the body's reaction to stressful situations and emergencies.
For generalised hyperhidrosis, there are certain tablets that work on blocking the chemical signal between the nerves and the sweat glands, but like any drug, these come with their own side-effects. Personally, I am apprehensive about taking a tablet to counteract another tablet’s side-effect.
And so for now, my search for a satisfactory solution continues. I intend to keep trying though - I'm still looking at different fabrics and the idea of keeping a sweat diary to try and find patterns. This I know, what has helped so far has been turning off the radiator at night, opening a window, ditching cotton, and trying my best to accept a situation that seems to be beyond my control. For the time being, you can still find me under the NASA duvet in my menopausal pyjamas.