In a week when the daily press headlines were full of a major treatment breakthrough by the University of Sheffield for the prevention of breast cancer, other information that was published by the BBC, referring to new reports that state disturbed sleep patterns to be one of the key causes.
Irregular sleeping patterns have been “unequivocally” shown to lead to cancer in tests on animals, a study suggests and the report, published in Current Biology, lends weight to these concerns about the damaging impact of shift work on health.
The researchers said women with a family risk of breast cancer should never work shifts, but cautioned that further tests in people were needed.
Studies in people have often suggested a higher risk of diseases such as breast cancer in shift workers and flight attendants.
One argument is disrupting the body’s internal rhythm – or body clock – increases the risk of disease. However, the link is uncertain because the type of person who works shifts may also be more likely to develop cancer due to factors such as social class, activity levels or the amount of vitamin D they get.
Mice prone to developing breast cancer had their body clock delayed by 12 hours every week for a year. Normally they had tumours after 50 weeks – but with regular disruption to their sleeping patterns, the tumours appeared eight weeks earlier.
The report said: “This is the first study that unequivocally shows a link between chronic light-dark inversions and breast cancer development.”
Interpreting the consequences for humans is fraught with difficulty, but the researchers guesstimated the equivalent effect could be an extra 10kg (1st 8lb) of body weight or for at-risk women getting cancer about five years earlier.
“If you have a situation where a family is at risk for breast cancer, I would certainly advise those people not to work as a flight attendant or to do shift work,” one of the researchers from the Erasmus University Medical Centre, in the Netherlands, said.
Dr Michael Hastings, from the UK’s Medical Research Council, told the BBC: “I consider this study to give the definitive experimental proof that circadian [body clock] disruption can accelerate the development of breast cancer.
“The general public health message coming out of my area of work is shift work, particularly rotational shift work, is a major area o stress and therefore it has far-reaching consequences.
“There are things people should be looking out for – such as paying more attention to your body weight, paying more attention to inspecting breasts, and employers should offer more in-work health checks for their staff. They should try to eliminate problems such as snoring by using an oral appliance.
The data also indicated the animals were 20% heavier despite eating the same amount of food. Being overweight is known to be a key factor. A clear indication of weight gain is always snoring as the tissue tends to close the throat and make the passage of the airflow constricted, resulting in the sound we all know so well, and constantly hear more of.
This is of particular concern at the moment when so much new information is coming to our attention on weight gain – particularly amongst the young. More than a third of overweight or obese teenagers don’t think they are too heavy and consider their weight to be about right, according to a study. Cancer experts say the findings are worrying because carrying excess weight increases the chance of developing many cancers.
Other reports show that many are binge eaters, and also have a sugar intake that is far too high – both of which exacerbate the problem. As a consequence more and more teenagers snore – yet they or their parents do nothing about it when simple solutions are there to help them.
Of course the key solutions are healthier diet and more exercise, but it’s also important to restrict the damage being done by restriction of oxygen due to being overweight.
Use of a simple oral appliance, similar to a sports gum-shield, or even using a Chin Strap, both of which can be worn comfortably when sleeping, will stop most people snoring immediately, and prevent this early damage to health until weight is under control.