Taffie Lynn Butters is a board-certified health coach at The After Cancer. She's a breast cancer survivor and is passionate about helping others recovering from cancer with lifestyle interventions.
As a child, I was fortunate to be a great sleeper. I liked to sleep. I liked the feeling of a warm cozy bed, soft sheets, fluffy pillows, and the cool breeze of a fan blowing the air ever so softly across my skin. I can remember as a teenager sleeping until noon or later and making my room a haven to sleep. Although I didn’t understand the importance of sleeping then, my body has always known.
The importance of sleep
Sleep and cancer have a dependent relationship. While lack of sleep is not necessarily responsible for the onset of cancer, it can be a contributor in healing and reducing the risk of recurrence. Sleep is usually disrupted during treatments and can continue to be affected even after cancer. When you are sleep deprived inflammation and cortisol levels rise, which can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain which can be huge factors for cancer. According to a 2004 study, up to 80% of people affected by cancer are affected by fatigue and/or insomnia, which can impact the cells of the immune system.
To quote the “Cancer Revolution” by Dr. Leigh Erin Connealy, “One study showed that insufficient sleep might contribute to breast cancer recurrences among post-menopausal women and the development of more aggressive forms of breast cancer.” The good news is consistent sleep hygiene can improve the quality of your sleep and protect and help defend your health.
Studies also reveal that a disruption to your circadian rhythm may affect your body’s ability to produce melatonin. This vital hormone not only aids in your sleep quality but has increasing research to support its importance on helping stop cancer from growing.
If you asked all the Marvel characters, they would tell you that sleep was their secret weapon. We don’t even have to learn how to do it. As fetuses we sleep, and our body innately reaps the benefits even before we are born. So why as adults do we play it off as a luxury and often discard the importance? Somewhere along the way our peers and society view productivity and an active body as a sign of success. We are made to believe that maxing out our days and having the ability to “function” on a couple of hours of sleep is some kind of badge of honor. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
So, what exactly happens when we sleep
Just like our computers, we need constant software updates and need to clear out the malware and viruses. Unlike a computer, this update needs to happen every day. Especially when you are defending against cancer. When you sleep, your body not only rest and slows down the whole operating system, but it preforms an essential clean-up process. This is essential in repairing and removing and damaged cells including cancer! Your brain literally cleans and washes itself from all the activity of the day. The millions of cells that were created are sorted and damage cells are taken out for the trash through the lymphatic system. And God bless our liver! Our liver is a powerhouse. Toxins get an invitation to visit the liver, so that it can remove them and send them on their way. And although our digestion is active all day long, during our sleep is when the information from the nutrients is extracted and waste is made.
See if you can relate to this…. It’s 3am. Why the heck do I keep waking up at 3am every single night?! It’s so frustrating.
I want to sleep until 6am or even 7am, but my body is just not cooperating. I have been arguing with my husband for the last several weeks, and I am worried about the effects it’s having on my health. I talk to my functional medicine doctor, and she is concerned that I am not sleeping. Well, I am “sleeping”, but it’s not restful and my body is not getting the time it needs to restore and repair. You see for this process to happen; you need to have a minimum of 6 consecutive hours of uninterrupted sleep. This is when the magic happens. This is when your body is doing essential healing.
Sleep is an important part of healing from cancer. It’s a major lifestyle intervention that often needs attention. Want to know something crazy? Sleep starts as soon as you wake up! Our gut and our brains are synthesizing and producing hormones that will affect the quality and quantity of sleep from the moment you open your eyes.
Recommendations for a good sleep hygiene
Let me ask you, what is the first thing you look at when you wake up? Is it your phone or is it the daylight? If you answered your phone, you may be having trouble sleeping at night. As soon as you wake up, your body is preparing for the next thing. By taking the time to expose yourself to the rising sun or natural daylight for 20 minutes, you are signaling your body to produce serotonin and melatonin that will be stored for use later that night.
So, what can you do to improve your sleep hygiene and set yourself up for the best sleep?
The CDC makes great recommendations. You may be asking why the heck does the CDC care about sleep? And the answer is because the Center for DISEASE Control is just that - trying to help you prevent disease. Sleep is on the forefront of disease prevention, including but not limited to cancer, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including the weekends. (backup 6-8 hrs from your wake-up time, that’s when you need to be activity sleeping. 30 mins before that is your bedtime)
Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature (use an eye mask if needed, ideal temperature is 65-68 degrees)
Remove electronic devices, such as TV’s, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom (blue light tricks your brain into thinking it needs to be awake and a smart phone emits Electronic Magnetic Field that disrupts sleeps)
Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime (ideally last meal is 3 hrs before bedtime, all three of these things contribute to reflux)
I would add to this list some sort of relaxation techniques. Stress is a major sleep disruptor and culprit for diseases including cancer. Ideas include yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, adaptogens, melatonin supplements, detox bathes, and herbal teas.
While working on sleep can sometimes seem impossible, consistently is key
It won’t happen overnight (pun intended), but knowing the effects and necessity are strong arguments to consider prioritizing it. Working with a Health and Wellness Coach can make the difference. A coach will partner with you, so you can achieve your sleeping goals and improve your sleep hygiene. Together we will identify challenges, set goals, use intuitive resources and tools, and developing a strategy to implement these changes. Coaching allows you to be in control and experiment to get you to your goal.