Tai Chi Relieves Breast Cancer Survivors’ Insomnia

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
October 02, 2017

Tai chi relieves insomnia in breast cancer survivors — that can lower the risk for fatigue and depression and could reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, too.

While difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep is a problem for over 10 percent of Americans in general, insomnia is especially prevalent in cancer patients. Around half of those being treated for cancer have sleep disturbances due to pain, treatments, and the psychological impact of having a malignancy, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

And even when cancer is successfully treated, it doesn’t mean a good night’s sleep is guaranteed. About 30 percent of breast cancer survivors suffer from insomnia — and struggling with too little sleep can result in fatigue, depression, and even increase the risk of a cancer occurrence. But for many breast cancer survivors who have difficulty with sleep, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists have found an ancient non-drug prescription that can help — tai chi.

 In fact, practicing this slow moving meditation, which relaxes the body and slows breathing, may do more than ease sleepless nights. It may lower the risk breast cancer will return, too.


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For their study, UCLA researchers recruited 90 breast cancer survivors between the ages of 42 and 83 who were having difficulty sleeping three times or more during the week. All the women were suffering from daytime fatigue and depression, too.

For three months, half the women received weekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of counseling involving talk therapy which has long been the "gold standard" treatment for breast cancer patients’ insomnia. The other research volunteers received weekly lessons in a Westernized form of tai chi (tai chi chih) over the course of three months.

To find out how the breast cancer survivors were faring with their sleep problems, researchers evaluated them at intervals for over a year see if their insomnia symptoms improved, along with other problems like fatigue and depression. After 15 months, about half the women in both groups had significant and lasting improvements in sleep and other related problems.

"Breast cancer survivors often don't just come to physicians with insomnia. They have insomnia, fatigue, and depression," said UCLA professor of psychiatry Michael Irwin, MD, the study's lead author. "And this intervention, tai chi, impacted all those outcomes in a similar way, with benefits that were as robust, as the gold standard treatment for insomnia."

However, while the talk therapy, which involves identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviors disrupting the ability to sleep, works, tai chi could be more practical for many women. Cognitive behavioral therapy is simply too expensive for some and, in addition, there’s a shortage of professionals trained in that form of counseling, according to Irwin.

"Because of those limitations, we need community-based interventions like tai chi," Irwin said, adding that free or low-cost tai chi classes are frequently offered at community centers and outdoors in parks. Videos offering do-it-yourself tai chi lessons are also available on YouTube and via smartphone apps.

Managing sleep disturbances can help cancer patients suffering from pain, the NCI points out. And when it comes to breast cancer survivors, Irwin and colleagues suggest practicing tai chi to relieve insomnia could also reduce the risk cancer will return. In previous research, the UCLA researchers found tai chi reduced inflammation in breast cancer survivors, potentially helping prevent cancer recurrence.

Many of the women who learned tai chi during the insomnia study continued to practice their own after the research ended. Irwin pointed out he’s not surprised because breast cancer survivors are typically motivated to help improve and protect their health.

"They often are seeking health-promoting activities because they recognize that the mindfulness approach, or health-based lifestyle interventions, may actually protect them," he said.


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March 16, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN