Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Why sleep matters for cancer patients


It’s National Sleep Awareness Week and across the country, sleep-deprived Americans are spending billions of dollars on sleep aids, from noise machines to specialty pillows. Last July, 8.6 million Americans reported taking medication to sleep better. Among the general population, 10-15 percent of us have trouble sleeping.

Sleep problems are even more prevalent among cancer patients, with up to half of all patients experiencing some type of sleep disturbance. Veronica Stevens, a Naturopathic Oncology Provider at our hospital in Philadelphia, shares advice about the importance of sleep and how to improve sleep with natural remedies, so we can all get the essential rest we need.

What are the primary reasons your patients experience trouble sleeping?

In my practice, 70 percent of cancer patients experience sleep disturbance due to emotional distress, which includes anxiety and depression. In 25 percent of patients, it’s the side effects of medications, such as primary steroids, that disrupt sleep. Another 5 percent don’t sleep well because of pain.

I see a lot of patients with chronic insomnia lasting several years, but study data shows cancer patients typically experience sleep disturbance for an average of two years. Most breast cancer patients undergoing hormone therapy will have trouble sleeping because of hot flashes, which start about four weeks into the treatment. Patients treated with steroids will have sleep disturbance within 24 hours of starting the steroid.

Why is sleep important for cancer patients?

Sleep may have a positive effect on the risk of cancer recurrence. During sleep, the brain produces the hormone melatonin. Melatonin a very potent stimulant for the immune system and has oncostatic properties, which means it may help reduce the risk of cancer progression.

Also, when patients get enough rest they are less likely to be depressed, and there is evidence that depression may be associated with an increased risk of recurrence. A study submitted at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology reported that depressed women with breast cancer had a 50 percent greater chance of recurrence than women with breast cancer who were not depressed.

What are natural remedies that can help improve sleep?

  • A melatonin supplement usually works well when people have trouble falling asleep. 
  • Rescue Remedy can be a good choice for people who have trouble sleeping because of anxiety. A combination of five flowers, Rescue Remedy can be taken as a spray or as drops.
  • Magnesium glycinate and 5-HTP supplements are options for women who experience sleep disturbance from hot flashes. Magnesium glycinate is a mineral supplement can help women with low levels of estrogen. 5-HTP is chemical compound produced in the body from tryptophan and then converted into serotonin and melatonin. 
  • Nux vomica can work well for people who experience sleep disturbance because of steroids and other medications. Nux vomica is derived from a plan found in Asia and northern Australia.

Learn more about naturopathic medicine at our hospitals.