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Sleep, Hormones, and Cancer

This post is a follow up to my two previous blog posts on cancer prevention. This time we are going to address the importance of sleep to cancer prevention.

Most of you are already familiar with the importance of healthy cortisol levels to support your immune system. What you may not know is cortisol also releases certain “natural killer” cells that help the body fight cancer. When our cortisol is not working, our immune system is not working, and we cannot fight off cancer cells. During sleep, the body produces hormones to help repair damaged cells, so when we don’t get good quality sleep, our body has no defense mechanism.

Two major studies corroborate the importance of getting quality sleep when fighting cancer. First, a Japanese study of 24,000 women ages 40-79, found that women who slept less than 6 hours a night were more likely to develop breast cancer, compared to those women who slept longer. Second, a 2011 Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard found an increased risk of breast cancer in women who didn’t get enough sleep.

Not getting enough sleep wreaks havoc on your immune system. Not getting quality sleep (7-8+) hours can make cancer aggressive and feed its growth, the same way sugar can.

Sleep is a vital and often under-utilized cancer-fighting tool, yet it’s importance is rarely if ever addressed at your annual physical. A lack of sleep can profoundly affect other things like brain fog, poor memory, weight loss resistance, mood, problem-solving, immune function, sensitivity to pain, and low energy.

Our modern lives are full of sleep-disrupting stimuli, from electronics, hectic schedules, blue light, poor nutrition, late night snacking, caffeine intake overload, all of which can contribute to poor quality sleep.

I find that truly the only way to address lack of sleep is to acknowledge that it is a very real problem and that it is causing you some, if not all, of the side effects listed above. Here are just a few suggestions to think about when trying to understand why you may not be getting enough sleep.

  1. Sugar overload in your diet. When you’re eating a diet that is full of processed foods, sugary soft drinks, etc. your stress hormone “cortisol,” is working overtime, and may be throwing your circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) off balance. If you find you have a chronic “wired but tired” feeling that is a good indication your sleep and your diet needs to be addressed.

  2. Make sleep a nighttime ritual and go to bed the same time each night. Understand how to “wind down” and let your natural anti-cancer hormone melatonin[CC1] , produced by your body, and is essential in regulating “sleep” and “wake” cycles and is extremely effective in producing healthy immune cells, to fight off foreign invaders and cancer cells. I’m talking about the natural melatonin produced by the body, not the synthetic pill form. In just after a few days of taking it, which a lot of times is over-used, can cause a host of side-effects including headaches, dizziness, irritability, feeling groggy or “hungover” in the morning, severe nightmares and disruption in sleep cycle. The problem with the synthetic version is it is not regulated by the FDA. A few ways to wind down could include a nighttime Epsom salt bath, listening to soothing music, meditation, and breathing exercises.

  3. Remove electronics from your bedroom one hour before going to bed. If you’re lying in bed, scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram feed, that phone emits blue light and has a negative effect on melatonin production.

  4. Dial in your diet. Don’t snack late at night. Eat your last meal at least three hours before going to bed. Watch your caffeine intake and added sugars and sweeteners.

  5. Don’t exercise at bedtime. Nighttime exercise interferes with your body’s ability to fall asleep and produce melatonin. If you exercise late afternoon 4:00 – 5:00pm, you should be fine. Anything after that and you’re more likely to have trouble falling and staying asleep.

Our body heals when we are in the rest and restore state. Paying attention to our body’s signs and symptoms, especially when we don’t get enough sleep, is so important. Once we understand the importance of sleep, we can begin to implement changes and set sleep as a priority as part of a healthy lifestyle.

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