Lack of sleep caused by OSA increases the risk of cancer

Although it has long been known that insomnia, parasomnia and sleep apnoea are associated with many other serious ailments, little research has associated these sleep conditions with the risk of cancer.

Senior woman undergoing CT test scan.

However an extensive new study where researchers have explored the relationship between sleep problems and the risk of cancer changes that.

Two million patient records were analysed in order to determine their risk for sleep conditions and were then divided into insomnia, parasomnia and sleep apnoea groups. The selected patients did not have cancer prior to the study and were grouped based on the same age, gender and year.

The link between insomnia and cancer

Insomnia is a condition that impairs a person’s ability to fall or stay asleep and has been linked with higher incidences of breast cancer and colorectal adenomas, a precursor to colon cancer. Sleep disturbances have also been associated with lung cancer and psychological distress, revealing that sleep disorders are associated with a higher risk of cancer.

Parasomnia is a group of sleep disorders that includes things such as REM disorder, sleep walking, sleep terrors, sleep talking and nightmares.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is a common and serious sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing during sleep. The airway repeatedly becomes blocked, limiting the amount of air that reaches your lungs, causing you to snore loudly or make choking noises as you try to breathe. Your brain and body becomes oxygen deprived and you may wake up. This may happen a few times a night, or in more severe cases, several hundred times a night.

For the study researchers selected two million individuals from Health Insurance Records but participants were excluded from the study if they had a case of cancer or a sleep disorder prior to 1999.

The research uncovered a significant increase in breast cancer in those with insomnia, parasomnia and sleep apnoea. Nasal cancer and prostate cancer were also shown to be higher in those with sleep apnoea, compared to those without the sleep disorder.

The researchers concluded that there was an association between cancer and sleep disorders and stressed the importance of proper sleep and achieving good sleep quality in order to reduce the risk of cancer.

Sleep deprivation and cancer risk

Lack of sleep because of OSA continues to be linked with other negative health effects. Aside from robbing you of the necessary energy you need to get through your day, sleep deprivation has been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, poor memory and diabetes.

But why does sleep deprivation lead to cancer? Well, it has been said that sleep deprivation increases inflammation in the body, which disrupts normal immune functions. When we sleep our body naturally produces melatonin. Melatonin not only helps us sleep, but has antioxidant effects to prevent cellular damage. Without proper sleep we cannot produce enough melatonin to help our cells, thus making them prone to damage.

Below are the main types of cancer associated with sleep deprivation.

  • Prostate cancer – men who suffer from insomnia have been found to be at higher risk for prostate cancer.
  • Colon cancer – individuals who receive less than six hours of sleep a night have been shown to develop colon cancer more so than those who get adequate sleep.
  • Breast cancer – after studying those with breast cancer, researchers found those with poor sleep had breast cancer two years prior to diagnosis. Additionally, postmenopausal women who experience poor sleep are at higher risk of recurring breast cancer.

How to get a good night sleep and control OSA

  • CPAP – using a pump and air cylinder that forces air into your lungs all night via a facemask – used mostly by chronic sufferers
  • Oral Appliance Therapy – a mouthpiece, similar to a sports gumshield, which is specially made to fit you. It is comfortable, effective, and by far the most widely recommended medically. Used by mild to moderate sufferers and stops snoring immediately.

John Redfern