Does Sleep Deprivation Pose A Cancer Risk?

Percentage of patients report sleeping fewer than six hours.

Posted Dec 07, 2010

Perhaps nothing is scarier than receiving a diagnosis of cancer, even if it’s caught “early” and therefore “treatable.” Theories abound on ways to prevent cancer and even help heal the body during treatment, from changing one’s diet to managing stress and engaging in mind-body activities like meditation and deep breathing.

But what about paying attention to sleep? Have there been any connections made between sleep and cancer?

There’s no question that getting restful sleep is beneficial for both healthy people and those battling cancer, but now we have evidence that people who sleep less than six hours a night could be more likely to have dangerous polyps in their colon or rectum compared to better-rested patients. The study, which was published by the journal Cancer in October, reflects the first time anyone has ever found a link between sleep duration and risk of polyps, which are tied directly with the risk for colon cancer.

Polyps—the abnormal growths detected during a colonoscopy—can progress to become cancerous tumors, which is exactly what happens in about 10 percent of cases. The stats in particular:

  • More than 140,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year, and some 51,000 will die from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.
  • Researchers at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland studied 1240 men and women who came to their hospital for routine colonoscopy.
  • Overall, the researchers found polyps in 338 people, or 27 percent of the entire group.
  • Analyzing the sleeping patterns of the subjects, they found a higher rate of these polyps in people who reported getting less than six hours of sleep (29 percent) than in those who said they slept seven or more hours nightly (22 percent).
  • The difference in sleep time between polyp patients and those without the lesions was small, only 19 minutes, on average. But more polyp patients reported sleeping much less than six hours, while few said they slept more than seven.

Don’t panic: Even if this newly discovered link is causal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get colon cancer. Put simply, the findings don’t prove that lack of sleep causes these polyps to occur. The results simply indicate that people who don’t sleep much at night might have the same chance for developing colorectal cancer as other high-risk groups, such as people with a close relative who has been diagnosed with the disease or those with a diet high in red meat.

It’s also fair to remind you that this study is just one in a slew of studies to come. What looks like an effect of sleep might in fact reflect some other factor the researchers were unable to measure.

But I look forward to those studies. Once again, it wouldn’t surprise me to read that sleep and cancer indeed share a unique relationship. Nothing could be simpler than getting more quality Zs in the name of cancer prevention.


Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™