The Missing Link: How Can Sleep Prevent Cancer?

The Missing Link: How Can Sleep Prevent Cancer?


Cancer prophylaxis or prevention are actions that we can undertake to lower our risk of getting cancer. Public heath campaigns have long been used to lower rates of various types of cancers, including encouraging actions such as ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’, encouraging bowel cancer screening or mammograms, or discouraging smoking, indicating that cancer is a multifactorial disease.

Factors that could increase or decrease a person’s risk of acquiring cancer can include their weight, drinking and eating healthily, alcohol intake, exercise, and, a factor that does not get as much recognition, sleep.

Sleep is integral to general wellbeing, serving multiple functions such as the ability for an organism to consolidate their memories, healthy emotional regulation, and sustaining attention. In a 2014 study published in the journal Sleep, it was found that sleep loss can cause cell damage, predisposing an individual to replication errors in their DNA, indicating that sleep is essential in decreasing cell injury.1 How is this related to cancer? Cancer is the uncontrolled division of the body’s own cells, driven by damage to DNA. As such, there is a link between poor sleep and increased cancer risk.  

While further research is needed into this area, encouraging healthy sleeping habits is essential to everyone, including those living with cancer currently, those that have survived cancer and caregivers to those with cancer.

Here are some factors that can allow for good sleep, called ‘sleep hygiene:

Talk with your healthcare specialists if you notice any changes in your sleep

It is vital to speak with your doctor, nurse, pharmacist, psychologist, etc. about your sleeping habits. Through investigations into your specific context, your healthcare team will be best able to support you through an approach tailored to your specific needs and healthcare goals.

Eating and drinking habits

There are certain foods and drinks that can affect your sleep. For example, caffeine should be avoided at least six to eight hours before bed. Alcohol and spicy foods must also be avoided. Warm milk, caffeine-free or decaf drinks can be used for better sleep. Foods that contain tryptophan (an amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin) can help make you sleepy. Turkey and bread are prominent examples of this.

Tailor your sleep environment

Keep the area you sleep quiet and soothing. Use the bedroom for sleep alone and try not to watch TV, scroll through your phone or read in bed. Avoid any electronics approximately an hour before bed.

Maintain a routine

Try to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, including weekends. A bedtime routine prior to sleeping can help prime your body for sleep, making it easier for you to fall asleep. Relaxing activities before bed like breathing exercises, stretching or meditation can be used to further put your mind at ease.

Ask your caregivers for help

You are not alone and there are people to help. Caregivers are essential to our wellbeing. Make your caregivers aware of what you need. For example, your caregivers can help by keeping your room clean, quiet and comfortable. You can also keep track of your symptoms using a sleep diary to make note of your sleep duration, quality, effects of your medications, etc.

Finding out which methods help you may take some trial and error. You do not need to attempt to change everything at once. If sleep is an issue for you, try changing one thing at a time and see how you respond. Be patient with yourself as it may take time.

Sleep is a factor that can also be affected long after cancer treatment is over. A 2019 study found that sleep disturbance was a highly reported symptom by breast cancer survivors’ post-treatment.2 Cancer survivors should also speak to their healthcare team to create an effective sleep hygiene plan tailored to help promote better sleep.

Sleep is an important factor for everyone’s wellbeing. In the case of cancer prophylaxis, following the tips above can similarly help you achieve better sleep, thereby helping reduce one’s cancer risk. It is important that we aim for better health through small actions which can amount to greater physical and mental wellbeing in the future.


Nuha studies the Bachelor of Pharmacy at UQ as guided by her interest in chemistry and biology, combined with her love of helping others. She is wishing to pursue a career in health care, specifically in the management of medications in complex conditions. She loves to read, look after her house plants, and raise her cat, Shere Khan.