Author: by Lisa Lefebvre, Founder/Patient with Susan Luck, RN
There are many factors that can accelerate recovery from cancer treatments. But none (besides hanging out with other people) are more important than getting enough sleep. Understanding why sleep is so important helped motivate me take my sleep more seriously. I hope it helps you take yours more seriously, too.
Getting less than 8 hours of sleep increases your cancer risk. Lack of sleep weakens our immune systems (not good if ours are already weak from cancer) and more than doubles our overall risk of cancer.
- Sleeping only 4 hours reduces our natural cancer killer cells by 70%. (Natural killer cells protect us from cancer cells and viruses by attaching to them and releasing chemicals that preventing cancer cells from reproducing and growing.)
- If this is what happens after one night, imagine how debilitated our immune system is after a week (let alone a month or year) of foreshortened sleep.
- Lack of sleep helps cancer cells trick the body to feed tumors with more nutrients and oxygen.
- Sleep deprivation causes inflammation in the body, and tumors use inflammation factors to change their DNA and increase the tumor’s potency.
- Lack of sleep can also help part of a tumor break off and move around the body, causing metastasis. (If this isn’t a motivating reason to get more sleep, I don’t know what is.)
Net net, the less we sleep, the shorter our life span. This is an endemic problem: over 65% of us don’t get 8 hours of sleep a night.
Yet getting 8 hours of sleep speeds recovery. Sleep has immense healing powers and enables us to restore both physically and mentally. It helps our tissues repair themselves and our organs to clear out toxins. Sleep heals painful memories and enables us to remain composed in stressful situations (recovering from cancer is a very stressful situation). Last, it helps our brains function better, warding off “chemo fog”. In the deepest and most restorative sleep, blood pressure drops, breathing becomes slower, muscles are relaxed, and growth and repair occur.
Knowing your personal sleep biology can help you get more sleep. According to Dr. Matthew Walker who runs UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, 40% of people are “Morning Larks” and 30% are “Night Owls”. This is not our choice, it’s an outcome of genetic fate. I know this is true because it’s why my father and I can’t help but stay up until 2 A.M. and my mother and sister think we’re bonkers and lazy.
Because of their 10 point lead, the Larks have won control over our daily lives. Work and school hours are culturally biased toward an early start time. Therefore, many (of us superior) Owls are sleep deprived because we are unable to fall asleep early – but must wake up early to participate in daily life.
Being aware of whether you are a Lark or Owl can help you select tips and tricks to fall asleep and stay asleep.
How to know if you are getting enough sleep. Again, Dr. Walker helps us here:
- Do you wake up refreshed, alert, and ready to start your day? if no, you are not getting enough sleep
- After waking up in the morning, could you fall back asleep at 10 or 11 AM? if yes, you are not getting enough quality or quantity of sleep
- Can you function optimally without caffeine before noon? if no, you could be self-medicating your state of chronic sleep deprivation
- If you didn’t set an alarm clock, would you sleep past that time? if yes, you need more sleep than you are giving yourself
How to be sure. Any of us intent on creating more health can begin by monitoring how many hours of sleep we are truly getting each night. If you download a blue light blocker from f.lux you can participate in a short sleep study that is being run by Dr. Steven Lockley out of Harvard Medical School. This will help give you the data you’re looking for. (We explain why blue light interrupts sleep here.)
If you find you aren’t getting enough sleep, make a plan to get more. It’s easy to put things off when our plates are full and we’re feeling overwhelmed, but try to make it a priority so you can get better, faster. We have more advice on sleep including how to identify what’s keeping you awake and how to create a bedtime ritual.
Source: Why We Sleep, Unlocking the power of Sleep and Dreams, Walker, Matthew, 2017.