Importance of Sleep for Cancer Patients

elder woman sleeping

With or without cancer, sleep is very important for good health. Creating a good sleeping habit is one of the first steps towards achieving your health goals – be it weight loss, improving stamina or even getting rid of major health conditions. As kids, we may remember our parents and caregivers trying hard to put us to bed and making sure we slept well. This did not just mean sleeping well for a certain amount of time, but it was also important that we slept at a certain time daily, mostly early and woke up early in the morning as well. As we grow older, staying up late becomes a common practice. In teenage and college days, most of us stay up late at night to finish assignments, to study before the day of the exams and we use any possible reasons to make sure we don’t sleep on time. The result is waking up very late, being tired and lethargic every morning. For most of us, this does not affect our bodies at that time as we are young, but it starts affecting us later in life. For some, the habit of sleeping late and waking up late continues for a long time even in adulthood and in professional life due to simply habit or being in jobs that require them to work late or in night shifts.

According to Sleep Foundation, there has been research that shows a link between continuous lack of sleep and cancers such as breast, colon, ovarian and prostate cancers. Most of us think that the number of hours of sleep is important and we ignore the importance of circadian rhythm and biological clock. There are 2 types of sleep, restorative and REM – rapid eye movement. Sleep that we get between midnight and 2:00 am is called the restorative sleep. Restorative sleep is important as it cleans up our cells and re-vitalizes the mitochondria. Restorative sleep starts only after 90 minutes of sleep, until then it is mostly REM sleep. That is why it is necessary to go to bed as early as possible so that we get the restorative sleep between midnight and 2:00 pm. Therefore, even if we sleep later, say around 11:30 pm and wake up at 7:30 am, we have had a good quantity of sleep but less quality of sleep as we probably just got one spell of restorative sleep.

When we say sleep is extremely important for healing, we are referring to restorative sleep. REM sleep takes up most of our sleep time, that is, 3 hours after we fall asleep and it starts again after restorative sleep cycle ends, when we are getting close to waking up. For optimal healing, it is essential to get multiple blocks of restorative sleep over the night. So, when we sleep after 10:00 pm, we get lesser restorative sleep, and this affects the hormonal balance.

Good Night text and a Moon

How Does Sleep Benefit Cancer Patients and Others?

  • Helps in healing and making immune system stronger.
  • Regulates ghrelin and leptin hormones that control feelings related to hunger and fullness. Sleep deprivation makes us feel excessively hungry which can lead to weight gain.
  • Restores energy levels in the morning as the cortisol levels become low at bedtime and get high over the night which make us energetic and alert when we wake up in the morning. Cortisol imbalance creates stress and long-term stress leads to diabetes, heart conditions and even cancer.
  • Melatonin gets produced in the brain when we sleep. Melatonin has antioxidant properties that takes care of, repairs and prevents cell damage that can lead to cancer.
  • Estrogen production in ovaries is lowered by melatonin. Long term sleep deprivation leads to higher estrogen production and puts women at risk for breast cancer.

Cancer patients often experience sleep problems because of strong chemo, radiation, medications, stress and anxiety related to their health and recovery, pain in various parts of body and sometimes depression that comes with inability to live normally. Sleep disruption is very common in cancer.

Tips for Cancer Patients to Improve Sleep:

  • Eat at least 80 percent raw diet that includes fresh and uncooked veggies and some fruit. This could be in form of salads, juices and smoothies. Remaining 20 percent could come from cooked whole grains and plant-based protein. Reduce or stop the intake of dairy and animal-based foods.
  • Practice daily exercise – This could be light to moderate depending on your health condition and the kind of cancer treatment you are receiving.
  • Practice relaxation and meditation techniques that help in reducing stress and falling asleep faster. Acupuncture, yoga and massage will also help in relaxing mind and body.
  • Avoid smoking, drinking alcohol, caffeine and consider stopping consumption of processed sugar.
  • Create a comfortable and relaxing sleeping environment by adjusting the light, turning off TV/phone/electronic gadgets that produce blue light and noise, at least an hour before you sleep.
  • Have a schedule for medicines and supplements so that your urine and bowel movements do not disturb your sleep timings.