Sleep to Your Health: 8 Changes to Increase Cancer-Fighting Melatonin Levels
Life provides plenty of irony when you are in your mid-30's and have Stage 4 cancer. Take my favorite example...faithfully applying anti-aging eye cream each night.
After receiving an article from my dad about how melatonin suppresses breast cancer growth, I spent several late nights plugged into my iPad screen, reading up on the topic. Ishouldhavebeensleeping..........
The study was from Michigan State University, where researchers found that melatonin, when applied to breast cancer stem cells, naturally suppressed the cells' growth. You can read more about it here. I also found this study, which demonstrated that exposure to light at night, even a small amount coming through a cracked door, rendered breast cancer cells resistant to the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen. Breast cancer cells are essentially at their weakest when we are sleeping (in complete darkness), the body awash in melatonin. Staying awake at night, or even sleeping in a lit space, keeps melatonin low and allows breast cancer cells to run amok.
These studies support growing research that our Burning the Candle at Both Ends lifestyles are contributing to the rise in breast cancer, particularly among younger women.
I am a mom with late night hobbies (and by "hobbies" I mean cleaning up after the Littles).... A natural early riser.... A cancer patient struggling with anxiety.... A woman with menopausal insomnia.... Yet, reading these studies, I faced the need to naturally support my body's fight against a breast cancer reoccurrence. To commit myself to adequate sleep each night.
Sure, melatonin is available as an over the counter supplement. (Sometimes I take it.) But here is a thing, a real concrete Thing, that I can do to take better care of myself and reduce my odds of cancer coming back and metastasizing.
This commitment has taken some discipline, along with good old fashioned trial and error. Here are the eight changes I have made to improve the length and quality of my sleep.
1. Power Down Screen Time
Sleep experts recommend turning off your screens one hour before bedtime. The brilliant, cool toned light from screens sends messages to the brain to stay awake and hold off on melatonin production. After I put the kids to bed, I dim the screens on my electronics and switch them to "Night Shift" mode (a warmer light). I allow myself some time on the sofa to catch up on Facebook or read a little news. But once I've crawled into bed, I only allow a quick peek at the next day's yoga schedule, or to set an alarm.
2. Dim the Lights
Electronics aren't the only light source that stimulates your brain. For the longest time, I was overlooking the most disturbing source...my overhead bathroom light. Flicking this on to finish getting ready for bed was telling my brain to "wake up!". I realized I need to stop ending my evening with stage lights! Jason created an awesome wall light for me with some LED twinkle lights from Marshall's. I turn this on after the kids are in bed, so I don't have to turn on the overhead (or stumble through the dark) to find my "nightlight". Now, when I wash my face and brush my teeth, it's in a warm, soothing glow that signals my brain to start producing melatonin. Installing a dimmer or a simple night light would serve the same purpose.
My girls insist on sleeping with their bathroom light on (hoping this is just a phase!). In order for us all to have a sounder slumber, I've started pulling that door to just barely ajar when I turn in. No riots yet...
There's plenty of science to back this up. At the risk of over simplifying, when you take care of your body, your hormones balance and your sleep is more restful. There are even certain poses in yoga that are designed to help regulate sleep cycles.
4. Keeping it Cool
It's healthiest to sleep cool at all ages (overheating has even been linked to SIDS deaths in babies). With menopause--helloooo hot flashes--it's essential! Here are my tips for comfortably cool nights:
-Turn down the thermostat at bedtime.
-Run the overhead fan (even when the temperature is single digits outside!).
-Natural fibers. Synthetics don't breathe, and can feel hot, or worse yet, clammy with night sweats. I make sure we have a cotton mattress pad and cotton sheets. On cold nights when it feels good to bundle under the covers, down and wool help us regulate better than synthetic comforters and blankets (Jason tends to sleep warm, too). My pajamas are either cotton or....
-"Cool Nights" technology. Several pajama manufacturers use fabric that, like athletic apparel, is designed to wick moisture and feel cool against the skin. I have some from Soma and Carole Hochman.
5. Empty Thy Bladder
Leave it to a cancer blog to keep it real about bodily functions! I've found that even when I don't feel an urgent need to urinate, it's unknowingly causing me hot flashes and insomnia. If I find myself laying awake, I get up and try. What do I have to lose?
6. Don't Overindulge
Throughout my twenties, many nights were spent in a boozy slumber. Man, I thought I was sleeping sound. Only later did I learn that alcohol actually disturbs your deeper sleep cycles. Talk about burning the candle.... Now, when I am going to have some wine, it's in moderation, and I am especially careful to stop well before bedtime.
I've found a full stomach disturbs my sleep, too. Nighttime snacking is my Achilles heal. But I am doing my best to avoid it, or at least choose something light and have it early in the night.
More often than not, I try to substitute a cup of herbal tea when I have cravings for a snack or night cap.
7. Pop a Pill
No, not that kind. If I don't plan to get up early for yoga class, I'll sometimes take a melatonin supplement for an extra boost. Initially I bought 3mg tablets and found that these were making me super sleepy during the day...and pretty cranky. I've since cut back to 1-1.5 mg, which I take on nights when I plan to wake up naturally, slowly, the next day.
8. The Ultimate Indulgence
I find even a good regular nightly routine sometimes needs a reset. For me, this is lighting candles in the bathroom and taking a warm shower. I follow this up with a few drops of essential oils in my body moisturizer...frankincense on my mastectomy scars (some believe it has cancer fighting properties...can't hurt...) and lavender elsewhere (for relaxation).
The reality is, I will never know if these steps are extending my life. But I can say they are improving it. I feel more refreshed and struggle less with fatigue. I now notice a big difference on nights when my slumber is cut short (six hours or less). In exchange, I've had to choose to read a few less news articles. Pin a few less pins. Draw my own projects out longer, over several nights...ahem....weeks....
I am learning to put my health first.
Gratuitous photo of sweet, sleeping toddler. Eli on the beach at Priest Lake in North Idaho.
What about you? Do you have good sleep habits? A special routine for powering down?