Sleep plays an important role in emotional and physical well-being, but research shows it may also help determine who gets cancer and how successfully they recover. In a study that looked at 1,200 women diagnosed with breast tumors between 2005 and 2008, rates were 30 percent higher in those who worked shifts versus regular schedules, and researchers found similar results in men with prostate tumors.
The body relies on chemical messengers called hormones to stay healthy, and erratic schedules can affect their balance. People need adequate rest to recover, but they are also more likely to get sick if they don't get enough rest.
How Hormones Affect Recovery
In 2003, doctors at Stanford University linked two hormones, cortisol and melatonin, to recovery. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, kicks in during periods of anxiety and may make illnesses worse.
At night, the brain creates melatonin, an antioxidant that prevents cell damage and lowers estrogen levels. Because light decreases melatonin production, women who work at night may have higher levels of estrogen, increasing the risk of malignancies.
The old saying, “it takes a community,” is true for handling stress and illness. Patients who can rely on family, friends and support groups to listen or lend a helping hand are less likely to get depressed and anxious, and that helps them recover more easily.
People who live a balanced lifestyle and practice good nutrition, rest and exercise have less stress, and that means they are less likely to suffer from insomnia too. Dr. Ken Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society, says getting proper rest and managing stress, along with radiation, surgery and chemotherapy, are essential pieces of a treatment regime.
Therapy and Circadian Rhythm
Circadian rhythm is the name for the internal clock that regulates an individual’s rest/wake cycles. New research suggests that this pattern of alertness and grogginess could be useful in treating illnesses. Not only could there be ideal times to offer different therapies, but there may also be optimal hours for taking medications, such as those for diabetes or high blood pressure. Chronotherapy, tumor treatment based on the body’s natural rhythms, is gaining credibility as a new weapon in the arsenal against malignancies. Medical providers use it to make treatments more effective and to minimize the side effects of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Just as bodies react differently to stimuli at different times of the day, tumor cells grow more rapidly or respond to treatment more effectively at certain hours of the day. Every person is different, and factors like age and gender influence the outcome. Scientists are not only working on algorithms for administering drugs, but they are researching medications that target the circadian rhythm itself. One of these is melatonin, a hormone that may suppress tumor growth.
Eight Ways to Beat Insomnia
Changes in routines, especially during treatment, make it hard to get enough rest, and people recovering from illness may also tire more easily. Resting may be difficult because of side effects, night sweats, pain, or mood changes. Medical professionals make these suggestions:
- Rest as much as needed, but try to get a little exercise every day, preferably two to three hours before bedtime.
- Don’t drink caffeine for 6 to 8 hours before bedtime or avoid entirely.
- Have a glass of warm milk or decaffeinated tea before going to bed.
- Eliminate alcohol because it causes wakefulness after two to three hours.
- Take medications at the same time every night.
- Set up a daily routine for rest, but limit naps to less than an hour.
- Turn down the lights and keep the temperature comfortable.
- Use relaxation therapies like music or aromatherapy.
Alternative therapies like a foot massage, soothing music or a light snack sometimes help. If the patient has an ongoing problem with confusion or discomfort that inhibits slumber, caregivers can ask the health team for suggestions.
Sleep Affects the Mind, Body and Spirit
Proper rest is necessary for healing the body and performing functions like repairing the blood vessels and the cardiovascular system. Sleep-deprived people face higher risks of conditions like kidney failure, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, immune disorders and hypertension. Proper rest provides these functions:
- It repairs tissues and allows muscles to grow.
- It rejuvenates the mind, body and spirit.
- It relaxes the muscles.
- It improves creativity, focus and the ability to learn.
- It reduces the chances of mood disorders or lessens their severity.
- It reduces stress and inflammation.
- It improves cognitive function, memory and mood.
- It makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
Insomnia and other disorders are more likely to affect individuals with mental conditions than those in the general population, but they also increase the odds of being diagnosed with a mental disorder and the severity of the condition.
The good news is that treating insomnia can have a positive effect on mood disorders. Besides anxiety and depression, insomnia and other difficulties play a big role in bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder. Illness may affect patients’ ability to get a good night’s rest after their recovery, and some cope with sleep-related breathing problems for years. Children studied by Johns Hopkins Cancer Center were five times more likely to experience snoring or pauses in their breathing while asleep than their healthy peers.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Versus Pills
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches individuals to recognize and change thoughts that lead to problems like insomnia or anxiety. The practice involves a variety of techniques that can be used alone, in combination with each other, or with medication. CBT works for long-term issues without causing the dependency and addiction issues that accompany pills. For patients already facing side effects from chemotherapy or radiation, behavioral therapy is a safer option for getting a good night’s rest than medications.
Besides helping with insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy can help patients deal with illness-related issues like side effects of treatment and drugs, pain, and the stress of a diagnosis by teaching them to manage their emotions and replace negative thoughts with more constructive ones.
Especially for people with diseases like mesothelioma, a rare malignancy caused by asbestos exposure, breathing difficulties and coughing make sleeping difficult.
Because lack of slumber can also make people more susceptible to illness, worsen their symptoms, or even cause the malignant cells to grow more quickly, it is important for everyone to practice good habits.
If making rest a priority doesn't do the trick, the doctor may need to prescribe short-term medication or test for co-existing conditions like apnea. Sleep is a requirement for getting well, not a luxury.
Results show that people who had reported sleeping 6 hours or less per night and snoring 5 or more nights per week were 2 times more likely to die from cancer. They were compared with those who reported sleeping at least 7 hours nightly with no snoring.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults should sleep 7 or more hours per nights to stay healthy! Here are 10 tips to help you get more sleep:
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends or during vacations.
- Set a bedtime that is early enough for you to get at least 7 hours of sleep.
- Go to bed when you feel sleepy, even if it’s before your bedtime.
- If you don’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed.
- Establish relaxing bedtime rituals.
- Make your bedroom quiet and relaxing. Keep the room at a comfortable, cool temperature.
- Limit exposure to light in the evenings.
- Don’t eat a large meal before bedtime. If you are hungry at night, eat a light, healthy snack.
- Avoid consuming caffeine in the late afternoon or evening.
- Avoid consuming alcohol before bedtime.
If you live in Alaska, call Alaska Sleep Clinic for your free consultation.