The 411 on Cancer and Sleep Deprivation

Wouldn’t we accomplish so much more in life if we didn’t need to sleep? With busy schedules and hectic deadlines, sacrificing a good night’s rest seems easier than actually sleeping. However, apart from the inevitable lack of energy that caffeine can only resolve temporarily, an increasing amount of evidence suggests that insufficient sleep may raise cancer risks, as well as impact the experience of living with cancer.

Understanding the link between sleep and cancer is crucial to reducing your risk, or help cancer treatment become more tolerable. Below, New Hope Unlimited explains the medical connection between sleep and cancer, common sleep problems associated with cancer, and therapeutic treatments that may help improve your sleep habits.

How can you get cancer from lack of sleep?

While scientists and medical researchers agree that sleep is essential to overall health, they have not determined inadequate sleep as an official cause of cancer. Still, a significant amount of research infers a tie-in between lack of sleep and an increased risk for varying cancer types.

The sleep problems and conditions associated with cancer are:

  • Chronic sleep deprivation
  • Sleep apnea
  • Shift work sleep disorder

Let’s review each one.

What is sleep deprivation and how does it increase your cancer risk?

sleeping lady

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Sleep deprivation refers to inadequate quantity and quality of sleep. For example, you may feel sleep deprived after preparing all night for an exam or work presentation. If you are a cancer patient, the kind of sleep deprivation correlated with your disease is often chronic. It can develop from insomnia, otherwise known as habitual sleeplessness or inability to sleep. Sleep deprivation can also occur despite getting a full 7 to 9 hours of sleep because it may not be as restful. The latter scenario is common with conditions such as sleep apnea and shift work sleep disorder, both of which we will review next.

Chronic sleep deprivation impacts your cognition, judgment, and overall ability to make decisive mental actions. It likewise reduces your ability to control your emotions, often resulting in irritability and mood swings. Last, chronic sleep deprivation plays a role in weakening your immune system. Impaired immunity may lead to unwanted weight gain, which helps explain why lack of sleep is linked with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other serious health problems.

Many of the symptoms associated with sleep deprivation lead to health issues that are themselves risk factors for cancer. For example, we mentioned that obesity is a common cause of sleep deprivation. But did you know obesity is a leading cause of several cancers, too? An increasing volume of medical studies further suggests that sleep deprivation may be an independent risk factor for many cancers, including malignant diseases of the breast, prostate, and colon.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious disorder that holds the possibility of threatening your life. It occurs when you unconsciously stop breathing in your sleep, resulting in gasping, choking, or snoring. Sleep apnea forces the brain to temporarily awake to begin breathing again because the brain—and the rest of the body—may not be getting enough oxygen. Men and women with untreated sleep apnea can suffer from interrupted breathing hundreds of times in their sleep.

The disruptive behavior of sleep apnea impedes quality sleep. Ideally, high-quality sleep is synonymous with at least seven full hours of continuous slumber. Entering this stage of deep sleep repairs your body’s muscles and tissue, while REM sleep (a kind of sleep that happens at intervals) repairs your mind by processing emotions, memories, and dreams. You experience the advantages of REM sleep during the latter half of the night. If sleep apnea constantly interrupts your night’s rest, your sleep cycle will keep restarting and cause reduced REM sleep. Less REM sleep is responsible for the cognitive and emotional drawbacks of sleep deprivation.

Sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxes and obstructs the airway during sleep, often causing you to snore loudly. The disorder is linked with diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. More recently, research pinpoints that sleep apnea may be associated with head and neck cancer, the severity of cancer, and cancer morbidity.

What is shift work sleep disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is a circadian rhythm disorder that affects people who work alternative work schedules, such as rotating shifts, permanent night shifts, or general work hours overlapping with the standard sleep period. Insomnia and excessive sleepiness characterize this problem.

Your circadian rhythm defines your body’s natural patterns, such as when you feel energized, tired, or hungry, among others. The circadian rhythms of humans are almost similar to the patterns of the sun, with  “circadian” meaning ”around the day.”

Shift workers likely operate in the complete opposite of their circadian rhythms. If you are one of them, you become susceptible to the symptoms of sleep deprivation, including a perpetual sense of jet lag, negative mood, poor judgment, and impaired cognitive performance. To make matters worse, shift work sleep disorder is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer.

Are there therapeutic approaches to getting better sleep?

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is a treatment option for difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting quality sleep. Throughout several sessions, you will work closely with your therapist on a variety of sleeping techniques and best practices, including but not limited to:

  • Cognitive reframing. In this psychological technique, you will review the negative (sometimes irrational or maladaptive) thoughts and emotions you have around sleep to find healthier substitutes.
  • Relaxation techniques. Deep breathing exercises help calm the body into a state conducive to sleep. The process of completing a relaxation exercise also distracts the mind from fears and anxieties, allowing you to focus on something else.
  • Bedtime practices. Planning and following a nighttime routine, which may include having a consistent sleep schedule, keeping the bedroom at your preferred temperature, and drinking chamomile tea are some ways that may trigger your brain into thinking that it is time for bed.

In the case of obstructive sleep apnea, the treatment of choice is often continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). CPAP involves a mask that fits over your nose and/or mouth, gently blowing air into the airway to help it remain open during sleep.

One of the best feelings in the world is waking up from a good night’s sleep. In observance of National Sleep Awareness Week and World Sleep Day this March, take proactive steps to get better sleep. Whether you are living with cancer or trying to prevent it, quality sleep will help your body fight diseases and your mind functioning at its best.

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