While inadequate rest increases the risk of cancer, restorative sleep is an essential part of its treatment and recovery
BY TERRY CRALLE
Editor’s note: Savvy mattress retailers want to do everything they can to help their customers sleep better, including offering them sound advice and tips. Feel free to share this great guidance from Better Sleep Council spokeswoman Terry Cralle with your shoppers (with credit given, of course). The BSC is the consumer-education arm of the International Sleep Products Association.
Sufficient sleep is considered the cornerstone of health and well-being. Conversely, insufficient sleep has serious health repercussions, including an increased 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.
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 seven or more hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health.” However, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others shows that many Americans are not coming close to those recommendations—and at what cost?
The sleep-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 than men who consistently get sufficient sleep. A lack of sleep also has been associated with more aggressive types of breast cancers.
Researchers found a 50% increased risk of colorectal cancer for people sleeping less than six hours per night. Other research suggests people diagnosed with sleep disorders such as insomnia, parasomnia and sleep apnea are at a higher risk of developing sickness than those without sleep disorders.
Sleep disruption in cancer patients
As many as 30% to 75% of patients undergoing cancer treatment experience sleep problems. Insomnia and other sleep problems can result from 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 2014 study found that the prevalence of poor sleep quality in stages I and II cervical cancer patients was approximately twice that of women who don’t have cancer.
Despite the prevalence of sleep problems in cancer patients, one study found only 16% of cancer patients with insomnia informed their health care 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’s role in cancer recovery
Not only is sleep essential for the physically exhausting and emotionally draining aspects of treatment, but getting restorative sleep during cancer treatment is critical to fighting the disease. According to David Gozal, a researcher and professor at the University of Chicago, “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 affect 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 better judgment
- improved mood, outlook and
Sleep and fatigue issues must be effectively and promptly addressed as they arise. Maintaining close communication with health care providers and optimizing sleep should be key components in all cancer treatment regimens, with sleep being considered a “vital sign.”
Better sleep during treatment
There are many ways to get the sleep you need. Researchers have 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 between walking and sleep quality has been seen in breast cancer patients. There also is evidence that therapeutic massage improves sleep for people undergoing treatments.
For cancer patients with sleep problems, simple changes can make a big difference:
- Maintain a consistent bedtime (and wake time) routine.
- Eliminate noise in the sleep environment by using earplugs, a fan or a white noise machine.
- Keep the bedroom dark by using a sleep mask and 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 also are options for improved sleep available from health care providers and sleep professionals, including:
- cognitive behavorial 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 and restorative benefits, but only if you let it. A better outlook, greater level of energy and general well-being only can be realized by getting the sleep your mind and body need.
“We need to treat sleep not as an expendable commodity but as an important factor, similar to nutrition,” Gozal says. “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 also has shown that positive sleeping habits can be integral to recover. Sleep’s critical role in health cannot be overstated: Sleep must be viewed as a fundamental biological need and prioritized accordingly.
Terry Cralle is a registered nurse, certified clinical sleep educator, and health and wellness spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council. Check out her website at