Could Getting a Good Night’s Sleep Reduce Your Risk of Cancer


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I have become reluctantly aware of the research supporting the necessity of a good night’s sleep to good health; reluctantly, because life is busy and too interesting to “waste” on sleep.  When I saw the title of a podcast “Hidden Brain – Eyes Wide Open: Part 2” it caught my eye.  I wasn’t aware that the discussion would center on sleep deprivation, but I was quickly riveted as host Shankar Vedantam conversed with University of California – Berkley, “sleep diplomat” and neuroscientist, Matthew Walker.

They discussed the known relationships between sleep and learning, and between sleep and emotional health; but the effect on health overall was information everyone should be aware of to ensure a better night’s sleep.  

Professor Walker emphasized that even the smallest amount of sleep deprivation has demonstrable health consequences.  Examples provided in the podcast included:


  • Consider Daylight Savings Time:
  • In the spring, we lose the opportunity for an hour of sleep, and the data shows a 24% increase in the incidence of heart attacks.
  • In the fall, when we have the opportunity for an extra hour of sleep, the data shows a 21% decrease in the incidence of heart attacks.
  • There are also potential links between sleep deprivation and an increased risk of cancer:
  • There seems to be a correlation (though not a proven causal relationship) between the levels of light pollution on the planet, and the distribution of prostate cancer in the world.
  • Sleep studies have shown that a single night of sleep reduction, where participants are limited to four hours of sleep for the night, can be followed by as much as a 70% drop in the level of Natural Killer Cells (anti-cancer lymphocytes) the following day.
  • Associational evidence suggests a link between bowel, prostate and breast cancer.

In 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified shift work with circadian disruption or chronodisruption as a probable human carcinogen.  

After listening to this podcast, I couldn’t help but review my own history in a new light.  I spent years working the night shift at a hospital, and I loved it! I had greater responsibility, a shift differential, and the flexibility to take classes during the day, work a part time job, or meet up with friends in the evening.  

When my husband and I moved from DC to California, with a baby in tow, it was back to the night shift in order to clear the day for child care while my husband went to school.  There were definitely years of sleep deprivation. Ultimately, without any family history, and without a BRCA mutation, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39.

The nationally recognized benchmark for adequate sleep is 8 hours per night. But, the ideal might actually be a good night’s sleep coupled with an afternoon “siesta”.  In the podcast, Professor Walker shared that we are genetically pre-programmed to have a drop in our alertness sometime after lunch.  In more primitive societies, where, presumably, people are freer to listen to their bodies, people tend to sleep biphasically, with a big block of sleep at night, regularly topped off with a nap in the afternoon.

What do we do if we have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, sleeping at all?  What is Matthew Walker’s prescription? Dr. Walker recommended the following:

  • Give yourself a non-negotiable 8 hour period of “sleep opportunity” each day.
  • Avoid technology for about an hour and a half before going to bed, and avoid the “blue light” of the devices.
  • Most importantly, stay regular. Go to bed at the same time each night, get up at the same time each morning, no matter what.

Will the average number of hours of sleep per night be a data element that is collected in a patient’s medical record someday?  Time will tell.

Hopefully this podcast will inspire those of you reading this article to assess your own sleep patterns and put some of Dr. Walker’s recommendations into action.  

“The next time you see someone sleeping, make believe you’re in a science fiction movie.  And whisper, ‘The creature is regenerating itself.’ ” – George Carlin, Brain Droppings

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels