As many cancer patients know, the immune system is your first line of defense in both preventing cancer and winning the battle against a cancer diagnosis. What most may not realize, however, is how crucial getting enough good sleep is for the strength of your immune system, your successful remission from a cancer diagnosis, and your overall health.

According to Professor Keith Scott-Mumby, MD, MBChB, HNV, Ph.D., sleep isn’t just important – it is imperative to your health. “Sleep, you see, is probably one of the most healing and restorative functions in all of nature,” he says. “We don’t just need it on a daily basis to repair body and tissue wear and tear,  put our brains back on track and so on, but it’s also a healing modality in its own right. Hey, if you don’t get to rest, then you don’t get to heal.

“Long ago people realized that if you wanted people to recover, you put them in bed, you made them rest, and the best thing you could do is sleep and doze all day – around the clock, in fact. It’s very, very healing. So there’s no question that sleep is highly restorative.”

The lack of sleep can have a detrimental effect on nearly every body system, according to Mumby. “If you don’t get enough sleep, sleep deprivation is the term for that, then various things can go wrong with your body and there’s no question that certain diseases are associated with sleep deprivation – heart disease and diabetes are just two of them,” he explains.

“You see, there are many inflammatory diseases, but these are two particularly inflammatory diseases where the whole process is based on the immune system over-reacting and producing an inflammatory response that then won’t go away.”

Keith Scott-Mumby

“When the immune system isn’t able to function at the perfect level, then there’s a risk that some of these rogue cancer cells will get through the net and start to cause trouble. … It’s very important that cancer patients learn to control and perfect the art of sleeping.”

Prof. Keith Scott-Mumby

The body’s inflammatory response

“Now we all know that inflammation in the short term is a good thing,” Mumby says. “That’s how you respond to disease and illness and so on. It’s your body’s reaction – your body’s temperature goes up so you get a fever and you get these blood responses that result in swelling and heat … and pain and redness. That is what is supposed to happen. Then it is supposed to go away, of course. If you get a splinter in your finger and it’s infected, that’s fine, but it should be gone in 3, 4 or 5 days at the most. It’s when it’s chronic that inflammation becomes dangerous.

“And this is where chronic lack of sleep can be important. Study after study has shown that if we don’t get sufficient sleep, the immune system is wound up and I mean wound up in an unhealthy way – not sort of ready to spring into good action.

“What happens is, the immune system starts to over-react, more or less immediately. Within a very few nights of poor sleep, your immune system goes into overdrive and then it starts producing inflammatory cytokines, which are bad for us. Those will sort of create the inflammation process. We get a flood of white cells into the blood in response to an infection, of course, that is a good thing, but as I said once the inflammatory response is established and won’t go away, that is a very bad idea indeed.

“It means, in fact, the body deliberately makes itself inflamed, so it’s just like lack of sleep itself is a disease and it upsets the body and makes it inflamed.  Now you can only go on so long threshing your immune system. If it’s overworking, you might think that’s great, but overworking could mean allergies, for example, and allergies are reacting to things you really shouldn’t ought to. It’s not needed and it’s not necessary, it’s just a nuisance to react to these things. So an overreacting immune system certainly isn’t always good. And, if it goes on for long enough, what is going to happen ultimately is the immune system begins to tire, and it won’t respond as it should.”

The link between sleep deprivation and cancer

According to Mumby, study after study finds there’s a drop in white cell counts, as well as in the numbers of natural killer cells which are very important to cancer patients. “You can’t keep hyper-revving the engine and expect it to keep on responding forever,” he notes. “Sooner or later it will tire, it will eventually lose its effectiveness and be unable to respond. And that’s a disaster in the case of cancer.

“We all know that, basically, cancer is a disease of the immune system. You can’t stop DNA from screwing up from time to time, and you can’t stop rogue cells appearing, but normally, they’re not a problem. The immune system spots them really easily and picks them off one by one.  It’s not a big deal.

“But when the immune system isn’t able to function at the perfect level, then there’s a risk that some of these rogue cancer cells will get through the net and start to cause trouble. For all these reasons, then, and more, it’s very important that cancer patients learn to control and perfect the art of sleeping.”

And, scientific studies are growing that show a link between sleep disturbances, sleep deprivation or sleep disorders and a higher risk of various types of cancer.

Sleep disturbances, disorders, deprivation, and cancer – The science:

  • According to the National Sleep Foundation, a lack of sleep has been shown to increase the risk of some cancers in both men and women. “There is some evidence of a link between insufficient sleep and the risk of cancer. In particular, people with circadian rhythm disorders—in which the body's biological clock is disrupted because of shift work, for example—may be at increased risk. A study in the International Journal of Cancer found a relationship between women's irregular work schedules and the rate of breast cancer. Researchers compared 1200 women who had developed breast cancer between 2005 and 2008, with 1300 women who did not have a cancer diagnosis. They found that the rate of breast cancer was 30 percent higher for the women who had worked shifts. Women who had at least four years of night shift work, as well as those with fewer than three night shifts per week (keeping them from ever fully adjusting to one schedule), were at highest risk. Shift work has also been shown to increase the incidence of certain cancers—for example, prostate cancer—in men.”
  • Shorter sleep duration has also been associated with increased risk of death from prostate cancer in men under the age of 65, according to data presented at the AACR Annual Meeting 2017.
  • In 2003, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston found a correlation between the risk of breast cancer and melatonin, a hormone produced by the body to promote continued sleep. When levels of melatonin decrease, the body produces more estrogen, which is a known risk factor for breast cancer. (ref: https://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/eric-cohen-breathe-well-sleep-well/dangerous-link-between-lack-of-sleep-cancer/)
  • According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Cancer which explored the risk of sleep disorder-induced cancer using nationwide population data, there were significantly increased risks of breast cancer in the patients with insomnia, patients with parasomnia, and patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Moreover, patients with parasomnia had a significantly higher risk of developing oral cancer compared with patients without parasomnia. The risk of suffering from nasal cancer and prostate cancer in patients with OSA was significantly higher than that of patients without OSA.
  • An October 2010 study published in the journal Cancer, provided evidence that people who sleep less than six hours a night could be more likely to have dangerous polyps in their colon or rectum compared to better-rested patients. The study reflects the first time anyone has ever found a link between sleep duration and risk of polyps, which are tied directly with the risk for colon cancer.
  • A small study published in the August 2012 issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment suggests that not getting enough sleep may be linked to a higher risk of recurrence (cancer coming back) of early-stage, estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer in postmenopausal women. The average amount of sleep per night didn’t seem to affect recurrence risk in premenopausal women.
  • A 2016 study published in the journal CHEST found that in mice that had both lung tumors and sleep apnea, tumors proliferated faster and were much more locally aggressive. You can read more about this study at US News.
  • Researchers have associated sleep disruption with an increased risk of liver cancer in a study by a team from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and published in the journal Cancer Cell, according to Medical News Today.
  • Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with results published in the journal Cell Metabolism, have found that disruption to the circadian rhythm also leads to the impairment of two tumor suppressor genes, which can spur tumor growth.

According to Medical News Today, sleep loss can also have a profound impact on both emotional function and normal thinking abilities in healthy individuals, resulting in:

  • reduced tendency to think positively
  • bad moods, a decreased willingness to solve problems
  • a greater tendency towards superstitious and magical thinking
  • intolerance and less empathy toward others
  • poor impulse control
  • inability to delay gratification

Perfecting the art of sleeping

Learning how to get a solid 7-8 hours of good, restful sleep can be challenging, according to Mumby. “Of course, often circumstances push you in the opposite direction,” he says. “There’s anxiety, fear, worry, stress, all of these things which make it very difficult to relax and get a full night’s sleep.”

Sleep remedies

There are various sleep remedies that you can take, that obviously everyone knows about – melatonin and so on, according to Mumby. “There are herbal remedies like that, valerian and 5-HT, and I do recommend these. You can get them in combinations, for example, Alteril has 5-HT, plus valerian, plus melatonin in it.”

Electronic sleep help

But what Mumby really likes to recommend are electronic aids such as binaural beats or flashing light technology such as photic driving.

“You can get these in combination where you listen to relaxing binaural beats which will tune your brain down to theta waves, which are very relaxing and pre-sleep,” he explains. “In fact, theta waves are very much trance and dreaming states, even low alpha is good for relaxing. You can do this with photic driving which is flashing lights. You can accompany it with beautiful, soothing music. And you can even have creative mind descriptions where you’re asked to do certain things with your mind that will relax it and de-tune it, and so on.

“All of these are well-established techniques, electronics in other words, and there are various ones available. Two particularly that I know and like are the Kasina and there’s the brain tap technology from Patrick Porter. As I said, these are known to me and they are good, that doesn’t mean they are the only ones or that I’m recommending them above others. I just know they work. The whole technology works and in my view is a little bit better than pharmacology.”

Routine and winding down

“Arranging your hours of sleep [is] known to be helpful, too,” Mumby says. “For example, you should start winding down long before the end of your active day and before you want to go to sleep – a minimum of an hour, two hours is better. And when I say winding down, I mean get off the computer, stop playing games, stop answering emails or reading on websites. These are all highly stimulating functions, and of course, stimulating in a bad way if you’re spending your time googling the side effects of your particular cancer, or the dangers and side effects of chemo, and so on.

“You really don’t want to be pushing your system in this way. Stress will lead to poor sleep and poor sleep leads to stress. As I said, the inflammatory response is a kind of stress response, if you think about it. But do remember it cuts both ways. Lack of sleep will cause stress and stress will cause lack of sleep. And both cause inflammation. So calm your mind long before you want to go to sleep. And try and reach bedtime, the moment when you get between the sheets, feeling significantly tired if you can. And by that I mean if you’re over-alert and your mind is wandering all over the place, you should maybe experimentally, for a few nights or maybe a week, just take some exercise before you go to sleep. Go for a walk – go a little bit further than you want to – and then turn around and walk back. That will tend to push you a little bit and make you feel quite tired when you actually arrive at bed.”

But winding down isn’t all that Mumby believes you should do for sleep time. He recommends a sleep space without any electronic distractions.

“I want you to take away all electronic stimulating devices in your bedchamber,” he says. “Take away all things from the bedside table or the nightstand. Get rid of the radio, clock and the tea maker. Even lights you should move away. Make sure you don’t sleep anywhere near your phone, your cell phone – you should turn that off, in fact, and leave it in a completely different part of the house. [This is] because the radiation waves, EMF and all these things we know are not good. If you think you are particularly sensitive, you might want to have an EMF demand switch fitted in your home.”

The full story on EMFs: Research, dangers, and how to protect yourself

Getting enough good sleep isn’t optional

According to Mumby, getting quality sleep in the amount your body needs isn’t an option, it is a crucial part of maintaining or regaining your health.

“I suppose the overall point I’m making is not how you improve your sleep, but that you MUST improve your sleep,” he says. “You must get it down to something like 7 or 8 hours a day. We don’t want more. Apart from when you’re beating a fever and the flu, cystitis, a kidney stone or something like that, it is not a case of more is better. It’s a case of about 7 or 8 hours is optimum, more than that is too much. But if you’re having less than that, it produces significant disturbance in all the [body’s] systems.

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) 2015 recommendations for appropriate sleep durations for specific age groups are:

  • Newborns (0 to 3 months): 14 to 17 hours each day
  • Infants (4 to 11 months): 12 to 15 hours
  • Toddlers (1 to 2 years): 11 to 14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3 to 5 years): 10 to 13 hours
  • School-age children (6 to 13 years): 9 to 11 hours
  • Teenagers (14 to 17 years): 8 to 10 hours
  • Adults (18 to 64 years): 7 to 9 hours
  • Older adults (over 65 years): 7 to 8 hours

“I hope I’ve made it pretty clear that your immune system needs you to sleep! It’s very crucial for cancer,” he says. “It could be life-saving. You’ve got to take it seriously.”