Can Getting More Sleep Protect You From Cancer?

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149405368Many of us find we never get enough sleep. But isn’t usually because we have difficulty falling asleep, but rather that we have too many things to do before we go to bed and so we get to sleep late. Six hours later, the alarm goes off and we would give just about anything to stay in bed. However, given a chance, most of us can happily sleep for eight, nine, or 10 hours if left undisturbed. This is a much different scenario than someone who truly can’t get to sleep or stay asleep.

For those who have sleep problems, life can be a lot harder to deal with. Daily tasks that require concentration can be hard to manage. Physical activity that takes stamina and endurance is a real challenge. Even keeping your mood on an even keel can be a difficult job if you’re not regularly getting about eight hours of sleep a night.

When sleep problems become chronic, health complaints can set in. While most of these may seem minor at first—feeling a little fatigued, blurry vision here and there, less of an appetite for healthy foods—more serious health problems can set in. Not getting enough sleep for weeks on end can lead to weight gain, relationship difficulties, and even heart problems.

Now, a team of researchers from Iceland think that sleep problems could contribute to the onset of prostate cancer. The scientists analyzed data from 2,425 men who were between the ages of 67 and 96. Those who had a hard time getting to sleep at night had a 1.6 time increased risk of getting prostate cancer over the course of five years. For those with more serious sleep difficulties, this risk jumped to nearly twice that of people who got adequate sleep every night.

The researchers were careful to adjust for factors such as smoking, age, and sleep disruption due to multiple trips to the bathroom—a condition doctors call nocturia.

The researchers think the link between sleep amount and cancer has to do with melatonin. Melatonin—the sleep hormone—is produced by the body during normal sleep cycles. Your body follows a sleep/wake pattern every day and melatonin is only produced while you’re sleeping. When you aren’t sleeping enough, melatonin production drops and your levels of the hormone dip. Melatonin, it just so happens, behaves in a “tumor-suppressing” way. When you have enough of the hormone, tumors find it much harder to take hold and grow. When you’re short on melatonin, the opposite is true—its absence promotes tumor growth.

The good news in all of this is that the researchers think that sleep may actually work as a treatment for prostate cancer.

The best way to ensure normal melatonin production is to sleep in a darkened room. Cover up all sources of light and keep your room quiet. During the day, you also need to get some sunlight. Your body thrives on a natural cycle of light and dark. Upset either side of the equation and you’ll upset your melatonin production.

Beware of these drugs that can inhibit the production of melatonin:

  • ŸŸ NSAIDs or anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Ÿ Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Ÿ Beta blockers
  • Ÿ Antidepressants

If you have to take any of these meds to address other health problems, try to take them well in advance of bedtime, if possible.

Sources:

Keenan, T., “Your doctor may soon prescribe sleep to cut prostate cancer risk,” The Vancouver Sun web site, August 1, 2013; http://www.vancouversun.com/health/Your+doctor+soon+prescribe+sleep+common+sense+prostate+cancer+risk/8738191/story.html, last accessed August 8, 2013.

“Melatonin,” University of Maryland Medical Center web site; http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/melatonin, last accessed Aug. 8, 2013.

“Prostate cancer: A good night’s sleep might protect against prostate cancer,” Nat Rev Urol. July 2013; 10(7): 369. 

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