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Sleep and Cancer

Sleep is the body’s natural resting state. People need sleep to rejuvenate and function with their optimal body, mind, and spirit health.

How much sleep do I need?

Healthy adults need between 7 and 8 hours of quality sleep nightly. Some studies indicate that sleep combined with physical activity lowers cancer risk. Sleep is critical to parasympathetic nervous system function for repairing and restoring health.

People affected by cancer, and especially those going through cancer treatments, may need more sleep. Caregivers often need more sleep too. Tune into what your body needs and do not underestimate the healing nature of sleep. Take naps if you need them.

What is the relationship between abnormal sleep and cancer risk? What are circadian rhythms?

Studies indicate that abnormal sleep patterns alter hormones that influence cancer cells. The key hormone produced during sleep is melatonin that helps regulate other hormones and the body’s circadian rhythms essential for health. Produced from the amino acid tryptophan in minute quantities by the pineal gland when the eyes detect no light, melatonin levels peak at night.

Abnormal sleep disrupts the circadian rhythms that control the body’s biological clock, biorhythms, and melatonin production. These rhythms control metabolism and cellular functions within 24-hour activity patterns. Research indicates that disruption of the circadian rhythms is linked to fatigue, cancer metabolism, response to cancer treatments, and tumor growth1-4. The link between sleep and cancer is an essential issue to address in an integrative cancer care plan. Health care strategies to balance the circadian rhythms must be used to support optimal health and healing through cancer.

The balance between light and dark is very important for your body and health. Exposure to light during sleep lowers melatonin levels and imbalances biorhythms. Irregular sleep due to nighttime work is considered a cancer risk. Nighttime work has been declared a probable cause of cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Scientists suspect that nighttime work is dangerous through disruption to circadian rhythms.

What are some additional ways to balance circadian rhythms?

  • Move in tune with natural light during the day and natural darkness during the night
  • Exposure to moderate amounts of daytime light and particularly in the morning with sunlight directly into your eyes to regulate and reset your biological clocks
  • Exposure to only low artificial lights into the evening as day moves into night
  • Transition into sleep in a gentle way without computer work, television, and intensive cognitive activities
  • Recognize through your self-awareness when your body naturally wants to sleep and go to bed before that time
  • Go to bed at the same time regularly for optimal sleep
  • Exposure to complete darkness at night
  • Wake up in the morning naturally without an alarm clock and with some consistency in your daily schedule
  • Breathing techniques with balanced inhales and exhales to support biorhythms
  • Relaxation techniques for relaxing and restoring
  • Meditation techniques for grounding and centering
  • Eat healthy, nutritional, organic foods as you feel hunger to support your body’s rhythms
  • Supplements and herbs to calm the nervous system if you need the extra support to feel balanced and sleep well
  • Melatonin supplements (possibly recommended at different doses) to balance melatonin levels in each individual. Melatonin is also used as an anti-cancer therapy for some people with cancer.
  • Incorporate movement practices to support fluidity, release, and much more
  • Exercise to support deeper sleep cycles, defend against insomnia, and ideally in moderation during mid to late afternoon or very early evening if possible
  • Mantras even balance your circadian rhythms according to research

What is the relationship between circadian rhythms and chemotherapy?

Cancer treatments through cancer chronotherapy provide chemotherapy at specific times of day or night within 24-hour activity patterns when cancer cells are active and dividing. These optimal times of day or night for cancer drug delivery are directly connected to the circadium rhythms orchestrating drug metabolism and cellular functions.

What are causes of disruption in the circadian rhythms?

  • Stress
  • Inactivity
  • Extreme exercise
  • Overwork and schedule disruption
  • Genes
  • Extreme changes in the physical environment
  • Overeating
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Timing of snacks and drinks
  • Low-carb, high-fat diet
  • Low-carb, high-protein diet
  • High ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s
  • Behavioral and physiological patterns of reactivity
  • Extreme changes in life circumstances
  • Mental and emotional frustrations
  • Trauma
  • Exposure to chemicals
  • Other environmental toxic exposures

What are some strategies to support restful sleep?

Sleep disturbances such as insomnia and disorders of the sleep-wake cycle are common in cancer patients. Strategies to create calm such as deep breathing and meditation help with sleep. Studies suggest that the most common sleep disorders in people with cancer are secondary to physical and/or psychological factors related to cancer and/or cancer treatments.

1. Circadian disruption in cancer: a neuro-endocrine immune pathway from stress to disease? Sandra Sephton, David Speigel, and James Graham Brown, October 2003 Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
2. Sahar S, Sassone-Corsi P. Metabolism and cancer: the circadian clock connection. Nat Rev Cancer. 2009 Dec;9(12):886-96. Review. PubMed PMID: 19935677.
3. Hrushesky WJ, Grutsch J, Wood P, Yang X, Oh EY, Ansell C, Kidder S, Ferrans C, Quiton DF, Reynolds J, Du-Quiton J, Levin R, Lis C, Braun D. Circadian clock manipulation for cancer prevention and control and the relief of cancer symptoms. Integr Cancer Ther. 2009 Dec;8(4):387-97. Epub 2009 Nov 18. Review. PubMed PMID: 19926611.
4. Life Over Cancer by Keith Block, MD