We all know that a lack of sleep can affect how we function in the world. Our mood, ability to concentrate, react, and respond are all in jeopardy when we don’t sleep well. This is especially pronounced if a lack of sleep is the default setting for your life.
But it’s actually more serious than that. A lack of wholesome, restful sleep will do more than just put you in a bad mood and make you impatient. Studies are beginning to suspect that there is a causal link between a lack of sleep and the susceptibility to certain cancers.
When we sleep (that is: sleep deeply and uninterrupted throughout the night), our bodies release certain hormones. The two most commonly associated with sleep are melatonin and cortisol. Both are produced at night and, according to some doctors and researchers, are thought to play an important role in fighting off cancer.
One of the ways that people will produce less melatonin than needed is when it is not dark enough for the body to have a healthy and predictable circadian rhythm. This happens can happen for several reasons, like when a person travels constantly and experiences too many time zones resulting in jet lag; or when a person keeps themselves awake by consuming artificial light like screens and electronics throughout the night.
Melatonin is a known powerful antioxidant, which is thought to fight off cancerous cells. Melatonin is also thought to regulate and reduce the production of estrogen in the body. When light constantly interrupts a person’s sleep, the release of melatonin is also interrupted, and therefore estrogen levels can rise. Too much estrogen can increase the probability of breast cancer.
Cortisol, on the other hand, is a hormone that the adrenal gland produces and releases, usually in response to stress. This powerful chemical helps regulate the immune system and fights off cancer cells. Cortisol levels rise after hours of restful sleep – they are highest when a person is waking up, and then they go down throughout the day and are generally at the lowest by the evening before the cycle begins again. Cortisol, like melatonin, lowers the production of estrogen. Again, high levels of estrogen are linked with certain types of cancers.
In order to ensure that you are achieving optimal health, there are certain steps you can take. When evening arrives, begin to reduce the amount of light in your life. Consider installing dimmers on your overhead lights or having some low-light lamps or even candles in the evening. Take a close look at your pre-bed habits. TV, computers, cell phones, and other devices with screens can affect our sleep and therefore our long-term health.
It’s also important to keep your stress in check. If work or family or relationships (or anything else!) are causing stress levels to skyrocket, there are a couple of options to help. Either take action to alter the situation or learn some stress-relieving tools that will benefit you: yoga, taking baths or walks in nature, learning to communicate or having a creative or physical outlet (like kickboxing or running) can all have positive impacts on our sleep and overall health.
We believe that it is very much worthwhile to pay attention to the quality of sleep in your life. You are investing in your quality of life by investing in your sleep!