The Role of Restorative Sleep in Cancer Prevention
Have you heard the quote by Thomas Dekker, “Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together”?
While this rings poetic it is also true in a very literal sense, and can be a powerful lifestyle tool in cancer prevention. In fact, researchers are currently studying its role in breast cancer prevention with some preliminary findings that may surprise you.
Here’s a look at why getting enough sleep is so crucial for your health, and why diet and exercise alone can’t undo the effects of chronic sleep loss.
Sleep and Health
Certainly most of us would agree that getting enough, high quality, restorative sleep is one of the best things you can do from a self-care perspective. Yet, it’s also one of the areas that is most likely to be neglected.
The average recommended amount of shut eye for an adult is 7-9 hours a night but lots of us are falling far short of this and it’s having a massive impact on almost every aspect of our health and wellbeing.
What exactly does your body experience when you don’t get enough sleep? Pretty much everything is affected but here are some of the more serious effects that poor
sleep patterns can have on your health:
Lowered immunity: Even a small sleep debt has been linked to lower immunity. Your immune system is one of the body’s first line of defense against cancer cells. A study in the “International Journal of Cancer” reported a relationship between women's work schedules and their rates of breast cancer. The findings reported that the rate of breast cancer was 30 percent higher for the women who worked night shifts and had an ongoing disrupted sleep schedule.
Hormone imbalance: A disruption in hormones can occur including a suppression of melatonin - a powerful antioxidant, and the naturally occurring sleep hormone that appears to suppress the growth of breast cancer tumors. Melatonin is produced by the brain at night, only in the dark, and used to regulate healthy sleep cycles.
A study at Duke University found that women who are poor sleepers tended to be more overweight than men with sleep problems. This can be attributed to a change in appetite due to two other hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin helps to keep your appetite in check while ghrelin does the opposite.
Ideally, you want to have more leptin and less ghrelin but not getting enough sleep throws this balance out and effectively switches them around. This means you’re a lot more likely to overeat, even when you’re technically full.
This added weight, especially after menopause, can be an added risk factor in developing breast cancer.
Women are known to be more susceptible to sleep deprivation because of hormones related to our cycle that naturally fluctuate during the month. Other factors like pregnancy, and child-rearing, especially during the very early years, can contribute to this.The years from perimenopause through post-menopause can be especially challenging, with over 60 percent of women reporting chronic sleep disturbance.
Higher risk of diabetes and cancer: Chronic sleep deprivation can pave the way for developing Type 2 diabetes, which in and of itself, can be a risk factor for breast cancer development. Studies have shown that just one a week of not sleeping well reduced insulin sensitivity.
Increased inflammation: Chronic low-grade Inflammation is now linked to lots of different health problems and it is one of cancer’s best friend’s! Over time, DNA changes can occur with chronic inflammation that may lead to cell changes and cancer development.
Sleep and Stress
You no doubt know how sleep loss can affect your memory and concentration. But it can also have a very real effect on your mood and ability to cope with stress.
So then what’s the potential link between chronic stress and cancer? Long term chronic stress can impact and weaken the immune system as well, and also increases the production of certain growth factors that increase your blood supply. This can speed the development of cancerous tumors in metastasis.
When stressed the body is flooded with chemicals for a short time that prepare a person for “fight, flight, or freeze”.
Transient stress can be lifesaving in emergency situations, but ongoing stress creates a continuous rise in cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine and interleukins. This chemical response begins to leave us feeling perpetually anxious and may shift the body into a state of chronic low-grade inflammation.
People who are chronically anxious and sleep deprived also tend to not eat as healthy, are less active, don’t sleep as well and may drink more alcohol.
These behaviors increase the risk cancer and make it a lot harder to maintain a healthy weight.
Weight gain over a lifespan, especially after menopause and if your already high risk, becomes an added risk factor for breast cancer.
So how do you know if your not getting enough restorative sleep?
Some signs that your sleep quality isn’t as good as it could be include:
Waking up during the night
Not waking up naturally e.g. you have to be abruptly awoken by your alarm clock most mornings and still feeling tired.
If this has been an ongoing problem for you for quite awhile then one important point to keep in mind is to be sure to talk with your healthcare provider and make sure there isn’t a serious underlying medical issue like sleep apnea.
Tips to improving Your Sleep Quality
In many cases seeking cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be immensely helpful in treating insomnia by teaching you to recognize and change beliefs that affect your ability to sleep. This type of therapy can help you control or eliminate negative thoughts and worries that keep you awake, without the use of sleep medications.
Outside of CBT, there are some things you can certainly do on your own to improve your sleep. It’s an area that I typically work with my clients on by looking at their sleep habits, environment and stress levels.
Together we may set goals that can include the following:
Making the room as dark as possible to support your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Pitch black (or as close to it as you can get) is best.
Setting a bedtime routine that involves going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at a specific time each morning.
Switching off electronic devices at least an hour before bed (even your phone!) to reduce the amount of ‘blue light’ you’re exposed to just before bedtime. This ‘blue light’ means your body finds it harder to produce enough of the sleep hormone, melatonin, to help you sleep well.
Learning relaxation techniques that help to regulate the stress response, bringing the body and mind back into a state of equilibrium, helping to reduce chronic inflammation and supporting our immune system.
Teaching my clients daily relaxation practices like meditation, deep breathing and gentle Chair Yoga has proven to be a helpful tool that can be used throughout their day - even at the office - and have helped them to get their sleep back on track.
If you haven’t been seeing sleep as a key part of your wellness routine, it’s definitely time to change that! How well do you sleep?