Sleep and Cancer: The Importance of Good Rest

Getting enough sleep can help improve your health and boost feelings of well-being. Unfortunately, cancer and its treatments often disrupt sleep. About half of people with cancer have insomnia or other sleep disorders.

Several strategies can help improve your sleep while undergoing cancer treatments. Additionally, your cancer care team may be able to offer recommendations to help you get a better night’s rest.

Key takeaways:

Health benefits of sleep

Getting enough sleep may help people with cancer in several ways. For example, your body repairs damage and heals itself during sleep. This may help you recover from treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, which can harm healthy tissues. Sleep may reduce the side effects of these cancer therapies.

Additionally, sleep can strengthen your immune system. Not only can a healthy immune system help fight cancer, but it can also protect against infections. This is important because many cancer treatments can weaken or kill immune cells.

Sleep also provides other positive effects that allow anyone to boost their health. It can help:

  • Reduce your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
  • Reduce blood pressure.
  • Lower your stress levels.
  • Balance hormones that control things like appetite, energy levels, healing, and immunity.
  • Boost your mood.
  • Sharpen your thinking by improving your memory, focus, and problem-solving abilities.
  • Protect against depression and anxiety.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Reduce your risk of experiencing an injury due to things like falls or a car accident.

For best results, adults should aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.

How cancer affects sleep

There are several reasons why you may get worse sleep while living with cancer:

Cancer symptoms — Tumors can cause issues like pain, coughing, muscle cramps, and changes in urination patterns that make it hard to relax and get quality rest.

Cancer treatments — Various treatments can cause sleep-interrupting side effects such as pain, night sweats, digestive symptoms, and breathing problems.

Extra stress — Juggling multiple doctor appointments and treatments, trying to keep up with usual responsibilities when you’re not feeling your best, and dealing with financial concerns can raise stress levels and trigger anxiety. These extra mental health struggles may keep you up at night.

Hospital stays — If you need to sleep overnight in the hospital, you may be frequently interrupted by your health care team. You may also feel uncomfortable in a different environment.

You may have a sleep disorder if you have a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early. Other signs may include snoring or gasping in your sleep, feeling like you need to move your legs too much at night, or experiencing fatigue during the day. Your doctor may suggest sleep tests to help find any potential problems.

Medications for better sleep

When sleeping problems arise, many people turn to sleep aids. Various medications can help you feel drowsier at night and make you fall asleep more quickly. Your doctor may prescribe drugs like benzodiazepines, antidepressants, or anti-seizure medications.

Many people with sleep problems also try melatonin. This hormone helps control sleep within the body, leading some to believe that taking melatonin as a supplement can improve sleep. However, research into this area has produced mixed results. Some studies have found that melatonin can help people sleep longer at night, while other studies haven’t shown a strong effect.

Make sure to talk to your doctor before using any sleep aids, including melatonin, as they can cause extra side effects for people with cancer or make cancer treatments less effective.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I)

It’s important to know that sleep medications are generally meant to be used in the short term and are less effective in the long run. Therefore, other strategies are also very important when you’re trying to improve your sleep.

Many sleep experts recommend CBT-I as the best first treatment for insomnia. This type of therapy involves learning how to achieve better sleep naturally by examining your beliefs and behaviors surrounding sleep. Unlike medications, CBT-I doesn’t produce any side effects, and it keeps working long after treatment ends.

You may be able to find a therapist in your area who specializes in CBT-I or you could receive this treatment online through a website or app.

Lifestyle changes for better sleep

Being more active during the day often helps you rest better at night. This can be very difficult because many cancer treatments cause fatigue, which makes it hard to do anything physical. However, increasing your activity levels can combat fatigue and improve the quality of your sleep. It may be especially helpful to be more active when you first wake up or to spend time outside in the sun. Try taking a short walk every morning.

Improving your sleep hygiene — your habits that affect your ability to rest — can also help lead to a better night’s sleep. You may want to try:

  • Going to bed at a consistent time each evening and setting your alarm for the same time every morning.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Avoiding naps during the day, especially in the afternoon.
  • Finishing dinner a couple of hours before you plan to go to sleep.
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol, particularly in the afternoon or at night.
  • Staying away from your phone, tablet, computer, or TV in the evening.
  • Keeping your pajamas and bed sheets clean and using soft fabrics.
  • Creating a relaxing routine before bedtime by reading, listening to music, or taking a warm bath.
  • Darkening your bedroom by turning off electronics and investing in blinds or shades that block light.
  • Cooling down your bedroom with air conditioning or fans.
  • Getting up and doing something else if you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes of lying down.

If you’re struggling to get good rest, talk to your cancer care team. Your doctor may be able to suggest additional solutions, treat sleep disorders, or alter your cancer treatment plan in a way that helps you rest easier.

It may also help to talk to a doctor who specializes in palliative care. This type of treatment aims to improve well-being and relieve cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. You can use palliative care at any stage of your treatment journey, along with other types of cancer treatments that aim to get rid of your cancer. Your palliative care team or usual health care team can help you figure out how to sleep better.

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