Your body possesses its own natural anti-cancer defenses. And they are powerful. But too many of us fail to take advantage of these protections, oftentimes because we don’t know better.
The frequent result is that we allow cancer to start growing and cancer cells to come together in a cozy little community called a tumor before the body can fight back.
One of the top ways to boost your body’s best natural cancer-fighting ability is to get enough high-quality sleep every night. The flip side is that failure to get regular, good sleep actually causes cancer.
A growing number of sleep researchers now complain that many studies of how and why we sleep are too “brain-centric.”
I certainly get why this is true – considering that when I’m not writing about cancer I’m usually writing about brain health. It’s fascinating to learn what happens in the brain as we sleep and what occurs in brain cells while we dream. The brain is one busy little organ at night while we’re in bed.
So it’s natural for brain researchers to spend a ton of time on sleep. Sleep mostly seems to be about the brain, and of course consciousness.
Except it’s not. Sleep is about MUCH MORE than the brain.
The rest of the body also does a lot of interesting things while we’re catching zzz’s.
For instance, according to researchers in Switzerland we are on the verge of amassing revolutionary knowledge of how sleep changes the behavior of DNA throughout the body and alters the behavior of the liver and other organs. Sleep also produces epigenetic changes in the immune system – shifting how the genetic material behaves in immune cells.1
And researchers at the University of Pittsburgh tell us that when we miss out on sleep and disrupt the circadian (daily) rhythms of the immune system and other parts of the body we “desynchronize” the body. The consequences of this disjointed rhythm in organ function are an increased risk of cancer – as well as heightened chances of heart disease.2
In other words, when it doesn’t get enough sleep, the body performs like a disorganized orchestra trying to play a symphony. It’s as though every bleary-eyed musician in a music group were playing at a different tempo in different parts of the score. That produces noise, not music.
When you miss out on sleep, say the Pittsburgh researchers, each of your organs resets its circadian rhythm at a different rate. The resulting disjointed, uncoordinated organ noise in the body can make you sick.
Disrupted circadian rhythms are a major health risk
It’s well known that people who have to work the night shift are at much greater risk of cancer because of the disruption in their circadian rhythms (see Issue #420)
Now there are some new findings on this. According to research at the University of Chicago Medical Center, lack of sleep and poor quality sleep – what’s called “fragmented” sleep, when you are restless, keep waking up and have trouble going back to sleep – can speed up the growth of cancer, make tumors dangerously aggressive and restrict the immune system’s ability to attack cancers that are in early growth stages.
In their lab study, these scientists found that disrupted sleep – what might happen at night when you wake to a loud airplane going over your house or party-goers screaming in the street – causes tumors to grow about twice as fast as they do when sleep is uninterrupted. Fragmented sleep can also help tumors more actively invade muscles and bones.3
When this was tested in animals, “it was a mess,” says one researcher who studied the internal destruction these fast-growing cancers can cause.
Part of the difficulty, according to this investigation, is that a lack of sleep and interrupted sleep increases the production of inflammatory immune cells that help tumors grow. In contrast, getting enough sleep favors the proliferation of immune cells that rein in the growth of cancer cells.
Sleep apnea is a major cause of poor sleep
A complicating factor in fragmented sleep can be sleep apnea. Apnea occurs when you momentarily stop breathing during sleep and then wake up gasping for breath. This cessation of breathing can happen hundreds of times per night without the sleeper being aware of it, because you don’t wake up completely. Getting older and gaining weight are both factors that make you more likely to experience apnea.
Sleep apnea has long been associated with diabetes. Now it’s turning out to increase cancer risk as well. When the researchers at the Chicago Medical Center examined apnea’s effect on lung cancer, they found that it enables cancer to more easily spread through the body.4
Research has revealed that oxygen deprivation is one of the main reasons apnea makes you more vulnerable to cancer and renders cancer deadlier once you get it.
The interrupted breathing resulting from apnea leads to a condition called “intermittent hypoxia.” This is the irregular, periodic reduction in oxygen in the blood and tissues of the body when breathing pauses.
These oxygen ups and downs lead to the increased cellular release of what are called exosomes – tiny little balls that act as messengers between cells. These minuscule spheres carry proteins, fats and genetic material that, when oxygen decreases, can help tumors get bigger and more aggressive.
In the lab, the scientists found that animals that had apnea-style breathing interruptions experienced large increases in the release of cancer-friendly exosomes. And the researchers believe that lower levels of oxygen in the body’s tissues increase the chances that the contents of these microscopic spheres become ever-stronger stimulators of cancer growth.
Sleep on an empty stomach
To further ensure that your body uses sleep for cancer protection, don’t eat a meal within two hours of bedtime. A study in Spain shows that consuming an early dinner at least two hours before bed lowers the risk of both prostate and breast cancer.5
Older studies have shown that people who work the night shift and who often eat in the middle of the night experience a greater cancer risk.6 In contrast, this new study, which involved around 4,000 people, focused on folks who work during the day. The researchers were especially interested in what happens to people who eat late – many people in southern Europe traditionally eat a late dinner close to bedtime.
In this investigation, folks who consumed their last meal before 9 PM and at least two hours before they slept had a 20% lower risk of prostate or breast cancer than those who ate after 10 PM and who went to bed soon after eating.
Lack of sleep is an epidemic
There’s no way around it – your health and your risk of cancer depend on getting the good night’s sleep that many people often miss.
According to Matthew Walker, a sleep expert who teaches neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley – “The silent sleep loss epidemic is one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the 21st century.”
To get good sleep, Dr. Walker, the author of the book Why We Sleep, recommends –
- Get to bed and wake up at the same time daily.
- Sleep in a cool room at about 65 degrees. Put on socks if your feet feel cold.
- About an hour before bed, dim your lights and turn off all your devices with screens. Blackout curtains can help keep your bedroom darker
- If you have trouble sleeping, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy.
- Don’t have caffeine after 1 PM. And don’t drink alcohol right before bed. Alcohol may be a sedative, but sedation from alcohol, Dr. Walker warns, interrupts your REM dream sleep, which is important to good health.
This is a worthy list, but I would recommend a few more things, based on our research and interviews with doctors here at Cancer Defeated.
Lights off, calm descends
You should have no lights of any kind in your bedroom, and this means covering up all those obnoxious little lights on electronic devices that let you know they’re plugged in. If you have to get up at night, try to get by without turning on a light. If you have to turn on a light, have low-wattage night lights handy. Exposure to light during the hours of darkness disrupts your body cycles.
If you have a medical condition that causes you to get up frequently to go to the bathroom, get it fixed, whatever it takes. If you don’t, the disruption to sleep increases both cancer and Alzheimer’s risk. Sinus congestion is another common reason for poor sleep – and it can be treated.
Another useful tip is to avoid excitement from stimulating TV shows, books or even phone conversations in the hour or so before bed. These activities can get us revved up and make it hard to sleep.
And have a regular ritual for getting ready for bed, at a regular time each night. Turning off all your devices, putting on your night clothes, brushing your teeth, all the things you do before sleep should be regular, predictable – and soothing.