We all know that we need to get an adequate amount of sleep to maintain optimum health. Not only does losing sleep cause disturbances in mood and concentration, it can also increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and a host of other health problems. On the other hand, getting plenty of quality rest every day allows the body to rejuvenate, improving nearly every aspect of overall health.
Now, according to a new study, getting plenty of sleep can actually improve mortality rates among women who have advanced breast cancer.
More Sleep, More Years of Life
Doctors and scientists have long known that there is a correlation between quality sleep and the effectiveness of treatments for certain diseases. However, scientists at Stanford University wanted to know whether there is a direct relationship between the quality of sleep and how long breast cancer patients live after receiving treatment.
The Stanford scientists measured the sleep efficiency of 97 women with advanced stage breast cancer over six years. Sleep efficiency is defined as the ratio of time spent sleeping to the total time spent in bed, and what the researchers found is that the higher the sleep efficiency ratio, the longer the patients lived. Women who spent the most time asleep — that is, who had the highest rate of sleep efficiency — lived on average 68.9 months after diagnosis, while women with poor sleep efficiency only survived approximately 33.2 months. In addition, researchers discovered that as little as a 10 percent improvement in sleep efficiency could increase lifespan by up to 32 percent.
The reasons for the strong correlation between sleep and survival are unclear, but the researchers suspect that inadequate rest affects immune system functioning and hormonal stress responses. Because this is the first study that has examined the correlation between sleep and breast cancer survival, and because the number of subjects was so small, further study is necessary in order to determine whether the results can be replicated and whether improving sleep efficiency can improve survival rates. However, because the results were so conclusive, the researchers are confident that further studies will support these findings.
Improve Sleep, Improve Health
While the benefits of cancer patients getting enough sleep are clear, quality sleep is often a challenge for many patients. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that only about 10 to 15 percent of adults suffer from sleep disturbances, but that 30 to 50 percent of cancer patients suffer from sleep disturbances. Sleep problems among cancer patients are attributable to both the physical and psychological effects of the disease; for example, in some cases, the mere fact of being hospitalized can inhibit sleep efficiency.
Still, doctors encourage cancer patients to take steps toward getting better sleep, and the authors of the Stanford study predict that a better understanding of the sleep/mortality connection will lead to earlier interventions for patients in the future.
In fact, all women are encouraged to get better sleep in order to prevent breast cancer in the first place. While drugs like Raloxifene can help inhibit the excess estrogen that contributes to the development of breast cancer, a 2012 study at UH Case Medical Center also found that not getting enough sleep significantly increased the risk of developing aggressive breast cancer. The study of nearly 500 women found that those women who slept fewer hours per night were not only more likely to develop aggressive breast cancer, they were also more likely to have a recurrence of cancer after treatment.
How Cancer Patients Can Sleep Better
Anyone who is having trouble sleeping, whether or not he or she has cancer, is encouraged to talk with his or her doctor to attempt to get to the root of the problem and develop a plan to improve sleep quality. Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to die from any cause, not to mention the day-to-day difficulties (mood disturbances, difficulty concentrating, etc.) that can arise from not getting enough sleep.
For most cancer patients, the same techniques that work for healthy individuals can improve sleep quality. Try some of the following if you cannot sleep:
Practice good sleep hygiene. Reserve your bed for sleeping only, and keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark.
Develop a bedtime routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol or fatty or spicy foods that will cause discomfort and make it difficult to sleep.
Address your psychological needs. A support group or counselor can help you verbalize the emotions that come with your cancer diagnosis and develop strategies for managing them effectively — without lying awake at night and worrying.
Learn relaxation or meditation techniques that can help you fall asleep.
If you still cannot sleep despite your best efforts, talk with your doctor about other ideas. There may be medications or other interventions that can help you get the rest you need. Given the importance of sleep in preventing and managing breast cancer, you can’t afford to lose any more sleep.