About 18 months ago, I attended a lecture at Gildas Club on the prevention of cancer. Dr Marisa Weiss, Founder and President of BreastCancer.org, gave a great talk, and one thing that struck me was light at night. This was the first I had heard of the perils of light at night and I must say, she was so convincing I went right home and ordered eye covers….and have been using them ever since. Dr Keith Block talked a bit about this at the Annie Appleseed Project CAM conference a few weeks ago, and while I will blog more on his lecture, I was reminded of this important subject.
I am sensitive to light. I remember when I first moved from the suburbs to the city. My bedroom was so bright, I could not sleep. My mother made black-out drapes for me and all was well. 15 years later, when I met my husband and moved in with him, I had long forgotten about the issue and found myself sleeping (or sleepless) in a very bright room…natural light from the moon and stars, as well as city lights lighting the night. Then came the nite-lites and long nights when our children were babies. While I certainly felt the misery of lack of sleep, I did not realize the effects on my long-term health; that I might be at higher risk of getting cancer. Habitual light at night during sleep increases breast cancer incidence by 22% (Keith Block, Annie Appleseed CAM Conference, Feb, 2012).
Dr Richard Stevens, Cancer Epidemiologist and professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, has done a number of studies on light at night (LAN). In 1987 he was featured in American Journal of Epidemiology proposing a radical new theory that “the use of electric lighting, resulting in lighted nights, may produce circadian disruption,” which causes changes in the hormones, one hormone in particular is melatonin, known as the hormone of darkness because it is secreted in the dark. In 2009 he studied women who work the night shift and found that these women appear to be at higher risk for breast cancer. Melatonin reduces the production of estrogen in the body, so with light interrupting the release of melatonin, estrogen levels rise, and too much estrogen heightens the growth of breast cancer. The WHO actually lists the shift work (graveyard shift) as a “probable carcinogen”.
Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist and professor of Stanford University supports the LAN theory as well. “There is evidence that women who do night time shift work are in increased risk of getting breast cancer. Melatonin is an antioxidant. There is some thought that disruptive melatonin levels which happens when you don’t sleep well, may reduce the ability of the body to scavenge free radicals that can cause cancer,” said Dr. Spiegel. Spiegel goes further, saying cortisol levels may also be connected to sleep and cancer. Cortisol is a circadian hormone produced by the adrenal gland that is released in response to stress. Cortisol also helps to regulate the immune system and releases cells that fight off cancer cells. Cortisol increases in the late hours of sleep, and Spiegel believes Cortisol, like melatonin, lowers the production of estrogen.
Many others have studied and reported on this as well:
So how do we lower our risk for getting cancer? Eat well, exercise daily, turn off the computer and the cell phone and get some sleep. Try to be in bed by 10pm, black shade your room or wear eye covers. Melatonin release is at its strongest from about 10pm to 2am, although I have heard 10-1 as well as critical from 2-4am. So, the best advice is likely to simply work on getting a good night’s sleep.
What can you do to improve sleep? The first step to easing insomnia and poor sleep quality is by recognizing it is a problem and then finding ways to resolve the problem.
- Establish a regular bedtime and wake time.
- Reserve the bedroom for intimacy and sleep only; do not watch television, eat, talk on the phone, or work in your bedroom. Try reading something more technical than fictional to avoid staying up late ‘to see what happens next in the book’.
- Make your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol within six hours of bedtime; drink calming teas instead, such as roobios, chamomile and lemon balm, but not too close to bedtime as this may disrupt your sleep if you have to get up to use the bathroom. It’s a good idea to limit alcohol usage in general as it is linked to cancer and is dehydrating, which may leave you thirsty during the night.
- Drink liquids daily to avoid dehydration, but again, not close to bedtime.
- Exercise daily, but preferably not right before bedtime.
- Avoid foods with additives and preservatives; some of these ingredients can act as stimulants and aren’t good for you anyway.
- To avoid nighttime awakening due to drops in blood sugar, eat 1-2 oz of a complex carbohydrate snack, such as oatmeal, whole-grain cereals, or whole-grain bread, one hour before bedtime, perhaps adding a bit of protein such as almond butter or nuts to further slow the glucose factor.
While proper sleep is the preferred source of melatonin, there is strong research suggesting that that low levels of melatonin stimulate the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells. So if levels are low, and cannot be corrected with sleep, supplementation may be the way to go. Melatonin may enhance the effectiveness of some chemotherapy drugs and may also help prevent the lowering of platelets in the blood during chemotherapy, a common complication that can lead to bleeding. It is always advisable to discuss the use of supplements with a naturopath, integrative or functional medical doctor before use, as often supplements may interact positively or negatively with other drugs.
There are many natural substances that can be taken to enhance sleep, and in my coaching, I highly recommend the use of them. Ashwaganda, for example, reduces stress and anxiety. Rhodiola helps with anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances and insomnia. (Caution, Rhodiola is not advised for those with Bipolar or mania). L-Theanine reduces stress and improves sleep quality. Schisandra has a calming effect and may also help manage stress-induced insomnia. (Schisandra should not be taken with Tamoxifen). Magnolia can help calm nerves and alleviate anxiety; it is thought of as the herbal substitute for valium, and is actually better as it does not cause that embarrassing and debilitating muscle relaxation (sounds good until you can’t function). By the way, several studies have tested magnolia extract on human cancer cells and found that it may inhibit the growth of cancer tumors. For more information on these and other herbal remedies, please email me or comment to this blog-post.
Elyn Jacobs is President of Elyn Jacobs Consulting, Executive Director for the Emerald Heart Cancer Foundation, a certified cancer coach and a breast cancer survivor. Elyn helps women diagnosed with cancer to navigate the process of treatment and care, and educates to prevent recurrence and new cancers. She is passionate about helping others get past their cancer and into a cancer-free life. To learn more about Elyn’s coaching services, please visit: http://elynjacobs.wordpress.com