Jolting awake in the middle of the night sopping wet and chilled is an uncomfortably shameful situation that I thought was buried in my childhood. I stopped peeing in the bed when I was six, so what the hell was this all about? The hormonal changes during the fifth decade often cause flashbacks to my childhood, with night sweats at the top of the retro playlist. Initially I was confused, not attributing my drenched t-shirts, pillows, and sheets to hot flashes because I was not hot, but wet and cold when I awoke. The same friend that taught me how to use a
tampon 3 decades ago filled me in on the hot flashes that are termed “night sweats”, and occur when I am asleep. I would be a bumbling idiot of a woman if not for my girlfriends and my Mom.
I did not make a doctor’s appointment to discuss this new development due to totally illogical embarrassment, perhaps a leftover from my peeing in the bed years. I felt lucky that I was not “flashing” during the day, a perfect term for turning as red as a tomato and pouring sweat in front of witnesses that do not love you. You may as well be wearing a sign that says, “Menopause, or close to it. BEWARE!!!” in flashing
lights. If I begin to have hot flashes that are anything like night sweats I will need to secure a towel to my belt so as not to leave a trail. The closest I came to needing a towel was at a national conference where I was speaking. Anxiety was clearly a trigger, and luckily I could run up to my room to change shirts periodically. I woke every night that week cursing the luxurious down comforter that had lulled me to sleep. Those few nights were the only times I woke up on fire because the flashes were prolonged.
When estrogen decreases, the hypothalamus steps up production of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that acts directly on the thermo-regulatory center of the brain. Studies have shown that internal stress, an individual’s perception of life, and external stress
such as overwork and insufficient sleep, exacerbate hot flashes.
The altering effect of meditative relaxation and physical exercise on brain chemistry becomes more essential the further I journey into the 5th decade. Between the mindfulness exercises that I learned at Mary Free Bed Pain Center and Belleruth Naparstek’s guided imagery exercises I can boost my DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) level and counter the increase of stress hormones. I have focused on stress reduction techniques because anxiety is my most influential trigger for perimenopause symptoms. The adrenal glands produce DHEA which can be promoted by “learning to think with your heart.” It is similar to redirecting a toddler’s focus when they want something they cannot have. Through practice I have learned to acknowledge what I feel anxious about, whether I have any control over the situation (usually not, hence the anxiety), and then refocus on something good in my life such as my family or a good memory. It seems to put my life in a more balanced perspective and typically reminds me of what I deem important and what I do not. One of the rewards of this practice is
witnessing the frustration of someone who is deliberately trying to provoke a stress response; it sort of freaks them out. But, reduced night sweats and serenity must fall under the “living well” category in the common quote about revenge and are even better payoffs. Other strategies to alleviate night sweats that have worked for me are: avoiding coffee after Noon, reducing alcohol consumption (drunk = guaranteed night sweats), eating fresh food and protein, and getting eight hours of sleep. Interestingly, fasting and cleansing programs can weaken your adrenal system, which lowers hormone production.
I have discussed my night sweats and other perimenopause symptoms with my doctor who has offered to test my hormone levels after I attempt to boost production with lifestyle changes. He assures me that women today do not have to endure this decade in misery, and that in itself changes negative feelings that are woven into my understanding of hormonal changes during this time of life. By paying attention (mindfullness) to what I consume and how I think I can lessen the impact of decreasing hormones, but it is comforting to know that my doc has a backup plan. And comfort is the key.