The Connection Between Sleep and Cancer

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The Connection Between Sleep and Cancer

Getting a restful night’s sleep is a challenge for many cancer patients. Pain from cancer itself, fatigue and discomfort from chemotherapy, and medication side effects are just a few of the things that make sleep elusive for cancer patients. Worse, not getting enough sleep weakens the immune system and can exacerbate symptoms or negative side effects.

An increasing amount of research has found links between poor sleep and several cancers. Keep reading to learn what the latest research suggests about the connection between cancer and sleep, and how you can get better sleep if you’re undergoing cancer treatment.

 Does lack of sleep cause cancer?

Regularly getting a good night’s sleep is an essential part of your overall health. While sleep itself has not been deemed a causal factor for cancers, researchers have associated certain sleep disorders with an increased risk of cancer. The three main sleep issues correlated with cancer are chronic sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, and shift work sleep disorder.

 Sleep deprivation and cancer

Anyone who has missed a night’s sleep understands the reality of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep worsens your mood, increases fatigue, and reduces your ability to concentrate. Chronic sleep deprivation (getting less than sufficient sleep over a sustained period of time, usually 7 to 8 hours for adults) is associated with:

  • Poorer memory and cognitive processing skills
  • Weakened immune system
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Increased irritability and higher risk for depression
  • Poorer judgment

Individuals may experience sleep deprivation as a result of hectic work-life schedules, comorbid conditions such as depression or insomnia, or environmental factors like noisy bedroom environments.

Unfortunately, multiple studies have linked sleep deprivation with increased cancer risk.

  • Men with insomnia were twice as likely to develop prostate cancer, according to a 2014 study that followed more than 2,000 men over a five-year timeframe.
  • Individuals who averaged fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night (below the recommended amount of 7 to 8 hours) had a 50 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer, according to a 2010 study.
  • Lack of sleep is correlated with more aggressive forms of breast cancer, according to a 2012 study of postmenopausal women. They found that breast cancer patients who regularly slept fewer hours of sleep tended to have more aggressive forms than women who slept longer.

Sleep apnea and cancer

Sleep apnea describes sleep-disordered breathing where the individual literally stops breathing for up to a few seconds during sleep. The resulting gasping, choking, or loud snoring may wake the person up multiple times throughout the night, so they experience disrupted sleep. Sleep apnea is typically caused by an obstruction of the airways.

For some time, sleep apnea has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Recent research also suggests a link between sleep apnea and cancer. 80 percent of head and neck cancer patients also have sleep apnea.

Spanish researchers found that individuals with severe sleep apnea had a 65 percent increased risk of cancer, and a Wisconsin-based study found individuals with the highest amount of apnea-hypopnea episodes were 5 times more likely to die from cancer than those without sleep apnea.


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