Cancer. Just reading about it is enough to bring anyone down. February 4th is World Cancer Day and is the ideal time to raise awareness about this largely preventable disease. According to statistics, 90 to 95 percent of cancer cases are influenced by lifestyle and the environment. That’s a big number, but there’s a silver lining to it – much of it is within our control. By not smoking, eating healthy, exercising regularly and lowering stress, we can greatly reduce our risk of getting it. There’s one more aspect that’s believed to influence the risk of cancer although studies are still being conducted to confirm it. It’s sleep. This important activity, which we often don’t prioritize, has researchers and scientists looking at the connection between sleep and cancer.
Experts aren’t 100 percent sure how sleep influences cancer risk, but they have found evidence that not getting enough quality shut-eye could set a person up for diseases like cancer later on. This can happen in various ways.
We know melatonin is a sleep hormone. Its release is triggered by the onset of darkness, which is why we tend to feel sleepy at night. Melatonin levels remain elevated through the night as you sleep and fall early in the morning. However, lack of sleep suppresses melatonin and prevents you from reaping its full benefits.
Sleep is not the extent of melatonin’s function. It’s also believed to act as an antioxidant and as an anticarcinogen (inhibits cancer development). Studies by the Department of Anatomy University of Arizona and the University Hospital Zurich on xenografts of breast cancer have shown that melatonin reduces the growth of tumors and prevents the multiplication of cells. It also inhibits the invasion of tumors. The First Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University conducted a study on mice and found that melatonin suppressed the growth of transplanted tumors.
The human body requires a constant supply of energy to keep organs functioning. One of the main sources of this energy is glucose. The hormone insulin tells the body when it needs to take glucose out of the blood and transfer it to cells. Good sleep also has a part to play by helping the body listen to the signals sent by insulin. Just a single night’s sleep deprivation can cause insulin resistance, similar to how it would be if you were on a high-fat diet for six months!
Prolonged insulin resistance is a characteristic of prediabetes and diabetes and can contribute to metabolic problems like obesity and high blood pressure. Obesity is a risk factor for colorectal, breast, kidney and other types of cancer although it’s uncertain why. It could be because obesity is often accompanied by chronic inflammation that can damage DNA and cause the growth of cancer cells. Excess fat tissue also leads to more estrogen production that can push up the risk of cancer.
As if that’s not bad enough, diabetes also increases cancer risk, especially in women. It’s not certain why but it could be because high blood sugar can also damage DNA and pave the way for the development of cancer.
Lack of sleep, even if just for a night, is enough to increase inflammation in the body. Inflammation is an important response in the body’s fight against infection and disease. Those symptoms of inflammation that you may be familiar with – a runny nose, fever, chills, etc. that you get during a cold, for instance – are signs that the body is at work battling a pathogen. However, frequent or prolonged inflammation does the opposite. Instead of fighting infection-causing agents, it attacks healthy cells and can lead to the development of cancer. Inflammation can also produce free radicals that damage DNA even further and promote the growth of cancer.
Humans – and many plants and animals – are governed by circadian rhythms, which are 24-hour rhythms or cycles that set the pace for various processes like eating, digestion, hormone release, cell repair, sleep, etc. While many of us have properly functioning rhythms, some don’t. They can’t follow a normal sleep-wake cycle. They’re active when they should be asleep and vice versa. But it’s not just an odd sleep-wake cycle they have to contend with.
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Since the circadian rhythm governs so many functions include cell repair, control of cell growth etc., a disrupted rhythm can lead to diseases like cancer by causing cells to behave abnormally and leading them to proliferate. Changes to how circadian genes function and behave are thought to be the cause behind this abnormal behavior. Shift workers are also at risk of disrupting their rhythms which can set them up for the same. The exact link between better sleep and cancer is yet to be understood fully, but it’s clear that it’s something to look at in more depth.
Sleep is not a cure for cancer, and neither can it single-handedly prevent it. Cancer is a complex disease that requires a multi-pronged approach to prevent. But seeing as how sleep is so essential to keeping our systems in check, whether it’s encouraging melatonin production, boosting insulin sensitivity or preventing chronic inflammation, it’s a no-brainer that we need to get enough of it. There are just too many finely balanced biological processes and functions that depend on it.