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Researchers are studying the link between sleep and cancer

A poor night’s sleep not only makes getting through the day difficult, it also may increase your risk of disease, especially if you suffer from chronic lack of sleep. Inadequate sleep has been associated with obesity, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.

Studies in recent years have identified a relationship between lack of sleep and some of the top cancers in the United States: breast, prostate and colorectal cancers. In addition, research suggests that people who have sleep apnea have an increased risk of developing any type of cancer.

Across the country, at least one in 10 of us experiences some kind of sleep disturbance. Stress, illness, aging and drug treatment are the main culprits. Quality sleep, though, is essential to healing, proper immune function and mental health, making it important for adults to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

Researchers continue to study what happens in the sleep-deprived body at a biological level to lead to cancer. They have found that lack of sleep increases inflammation and disrupts normal immune function. Both may promote cancer development. In addition, the hormone melatonin, which is produced during sleep, may have antioxidant properties that help prevent cellular damage.

Here are summaries of recent research linking lack of sleep to cancer:

Prostate cancer: Affecting more men than any other cancer, an estimated 233,000 new cases of prostate cancer are expected in 2014. Last year, a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention found that men who suffer from insomnia may be at increased risk of prostate cancer.

  • Researchers surveyed of 2,102 men and followed the 1,347 men in the group who didn’t fall asleep easily and/or experienced disrupted sleep.
  • After about five years, 135 men developed prostate cancer, with 26 of them having an aggressive form of the disease.
  • Researchers identified a twofold risk of developing prostate cancer in men with sleep insomnia.

Colorectal cancer: It’s estimated that 136,830 men and women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2014, making it the second most common cancer affecting both sexes after lung cancer. Inadequate sleep may lead to the development on colorectal cancer, according to a 2010 study published in Cancer.

  • Researchers studied the sleep quality of 1,240 people about to have a colonoscopy.
  • 338 study participants were diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Those diagnosed were more likely to average less than six hours of sleep per night.
  • Researchers calculated a 50 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer for people sleeping less than six hours per night.

Breast cancer: An estimated 232,670 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. A 2012 study suggests that women may develop more aggressive breast cancer if they chronically lack sleep.

  • Researchers asked 101 recently diagnosed breast cancer patients about the average amount of sleep they got two years before diagnosis.
  • They found that the post-menopausal women who slept fewer hours had a higher likelihood of cancer recurrence.
  • The study was the first to suggest more aggressive breast cancers are associated with inadequate sleep.

How to sleep well

Drifting to sleep may seem like a dream when you’re tossing and turning in bed. But there are several bedtime strategies and rules that may help improve your sleep at night. Make sure your bed and bedroom are quiet and comfortable, then give these tips a try:

  • Get up and go to bed the same time every day
  • Don't take naps
  • Only use your bed for sleep and sex
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol at least 4-6 hours before bed
  • Don’t exercise at least 4 hours before bedtime
  • Sleep only when sleepy
  • Develop sleep rituals, such as listening to relaxing music, reading something soothing for 15 minutes, having a cup of caffeine-free tea and doing relaxation exercises
  • Have a light snack before bed: Good options include yogurt, bananas, whole-wheat cereal with skim milk, half a peanut butter sandwich or cherry juice.
  • If you can't fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something boring until you feel sleepy.

See our infographic about the link between sleep and cancer to learn more.

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