Cancer and Healing: The Sleep-Health Connection

Sufficient sleep is considered the cornerstone of health and well-being. Conversely, insufficient sleep has serious health repercussions, including an increase in the risk of stroke, depression, hypertension, heart attack, diabetes, dementia, obesity, osteoporosis, motor vehicle accidents, and on-the-job accidents and injuries. Recent research has demonstrated even more alarming downsides to sleep deprivation, including an impact on some of the most prolific cancers: breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers.

These are worrisome findings considering that skimping on sleep is all too common in today’s fast-paced, 24/7 world. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adults “should sleep 7 or more hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health.” However, data from the CDC and others report that many Americans are not coming close to those recommendations—and at what cost?

The Sleep and Cancer Connection

Lack of sleep increases inflammation, which in turn increases the risk of cancer and other serious diseases. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that fragmented sleep directly impacts tumor growth. In mice that had disrupted sleep, tumors were twice the size of those in mice that slept normally.

Men with sleep problems are more likely to develop prostate cancer as men who consistently get sufficient sleep. A lack of sleep has also been associated with more aggressive types of breast cancers.

Researchers found a 50 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer for people sleeping less than six hours per night. Other research also suggests that people diagnosed with sleep disorders such as insomnia, parasomnia, and sleep apnea are at a higher risk of developing cancers than those without sleep disorders.

Sleep Disruption in Cancer Patients

As many as 30 to 75 percent of patients undergoing cancer treatment experience sleep problems. Insomnia and other sleep problems can result from such things such as side effects from medications, anxiety, frequent hospitalizations, work schedules, underlying health conditions, and family obligations. Insomnia is about three times more prevalent among cancer patients being treated with chemotherapy than it is in the general population. The results of a study published in 2014 found that the prevalence of poor sleep quality in stages I and II cervical cancer patients was approximately twice than that of non-affected women.

Despite the prevalence of sleep problems in cancer patients, one study found only 16 percent of cancer patients with insomnia informed their healthcare provider about the problem. In addition, patients, family members, and caregivers may not recognize the significance of these sleep disruptions on successful cancer treatment and recovery, and many practitioners fail to ask about sleep.

Sleep Plays a Major Role in Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Not only is sleep essential for the physically exhausting and emotionally draining aspects of treatment, but getting restorative, quality sleep during cancer treatment is critical to fighting the disease. According to researcher Dr. David Gozal, “Fragmented sleep changes how the immune system deals with cancer in ways that make the disease more aggressive.”One study found colon cancer patients who complained of sleep problems and circadian disruption had worse survival rates. Sleep patterns influence levels of the hormones melatonin and cortisol, which affects the progression of cancer. Insufficient sleep also leads to a decrease in natural killer cells that help fight cancer.

The physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits of sufficient sleep that support cancer treatment and recovery include:

  • optimized immune system
  • increased energy
  • reduced anxiety
  • improved pain tolerance
  • better memory
  • reduction in stress levels
  • clarity of thought, improved problem solving, and judgment
  • improved mood, outlook, and optimism

Sleep and fatigue issues must be effectively and promptly addressed as they arise. Maintaining close communication with healthcare providers and optimizing sleep should be key components in all cancer treatment regimens, with sleep being considered a “vital sign.”

Better Sleep During Treatment

Many things can help you get the sleep you need. Researchers found that yoga is effective in helping cancer patients sleep better. Another study suggests that walking improves sleep quality in patients diagnosed with lung cancer. A similar correlation with walking and sleep quality was seen in breast cancer patients. There is also evidence that therapeutic massage improves sleep for people undergoing cancer treatments.

For cancer patients with sleep problems, some simple changes may make a big difference:

  • maintain a consistent bedtime (and wake time) routine
  • eliminate noise in the sleep environment as much as possible (earplugs, fan, white noise machines)
  • keep the bedroom as dark as possible (sleep mask, blackout shades)
  • make the bedroom a sleep sanctuary: serene, uncluttered, and relaxing.
  • invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows
  • turn off all electronics at least an hour before bedtime
  • avoid alcohol, which can lead to fragmented sleep
  • avoid caffeine after noon

There are also options for improved sleep available from healthcare providers and sleep professionals, including:

  • counseling
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • adjustment of medications (dosage or timing)
  • relaxation and stress-reduction techniques
  • nutritional counseling
  • stimulus control therapy
  • light therapy
  • sleep restriction techniques
  • short-term use of a prescription sleep aid

Sleep Helps Your Body Heal

Sleep confers incredible health, protective, restorative, and healing benefits—but only if you let it. A better outlook and greater level of energy and general well-being can only be realized by getting the sleep your mind and body needs.

As Dr. David Gozal so eloquently stated, “We need to treat sleep not as an expendable commodity but as an important factor, similar to nutrition. Sleep is a life-supportive system. If we don’t respect sleep, we’re at risk of complications and poorer outcomes.”

And while research has shown a link between lack of sleep and cancer, it has also shown that positive sleeping habits can be integral in recovery. Sleep’s critical role in health cannot be overstated: sleep must be viewed as a fundamental biological need and prioritized accordingly.


Blogger: Terry Cralle       @PowerOfSleep

Sleep Health and Wellness Professional /  Terry Cralle, RN, MS

Sleep Health and Wellness Professional /
Terry Cralle, RN, MS

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