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Sleep Blog - Creating cancer caring communities

Published on 03 January 2024 12:12 PM

This month we are talking all about SLEEP.

Sometimes, getting a good night’s sleep can feel like a losing battle. But sleep is just as vital for good health as regular exercise and a balanced diet. It gives your mind and body the time to recharge, so that you wake feeling refreshed and alert. Yet sleep is often overlooked and not seen as a priority in our busy, everyday lives.



If you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel well-rested in the morning, you are experiencing insomnia. Many people experience this at some stage due to factors like stress and anxiety. Insomnia is a common problem in the UK, regularly affecting about one in three people according to the NHS.

Did you know that women are more likely to have insomnia than men? Sleeping difficulties are also more common among shift workers who do not have regular sleep schedules, people with a history of depression, and those who don't get much physical activity.

How much sleep?

The amount of sleep required can vary from person to person, but generally, all adults should aim for at least seven hours of sleep every night. Less than this over a long period of time can cause mental, physical, and cognitive health issues, and even a shortened lifespan. You may have heard that you need less sleep as you get older, but this simply isn’t true. Your sleep quality, however, can worsen as you age. Compared with younger adults, older adults typically take longer to get to sleep, nap more during the day and wake up more frequently in the night (for example, due to the medication that they are on disturbing their sleep).

Are you affected by Cancer and struggle to sleep? You are not alone.

It is very common for people living with cancer to suffer from insomnia; this is often due to:

  • Cancer symptoms, such as pain or sickness.
  • The side effects of treatment.
  • Feelings of anxiety, worry or depression.

You might find it beneficial to try keeping a sleep diary, to record and better understand the underlying cause(s) of your insomnia. If your cancer symptoms are disturbing your sleep, it is worth talking to your doctor about this because they may be able to prescribe treatment to help. This could be medication, or they might suggest counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can help you to control or eliminate negative thought patterns and actions that are keeping you awake, and is proven to be just as effective, if not more so, than sleep medications.

There are apps and websites available, such as Headspace and Sleepio. Sleepio is available free to people with cancer or those affected by cancer. It’s a digital self-help programme. It aims to help you manage sleep problems and insomnia using CBT. Visit the Headspace website or the Sleepio website.

Stress and Cortisol

Stress is often to blame when you can’t seem to switch off and your mind is overactive. This is because stress causes your body to release the hormone cortisol, which keeps you alert. While this may be useful in certain stressful situations, it is not helpful when you’re trying to drift off and is disruptive to our sleep routines.

Not being able to sleep can be a stressor itself, increasing feelings of anxiety. Anxiety contributes to the overproduction of cortisol and causes racing or repetitive thoughts and worries that keep you awake. You might be worrying about how you will get through the next day and cope with work or family responsibilities, for example.


Helpful Tips

When insomnia strikes, there are some simple things you can try to overcome this:

  • Set up a 'worry time' before bed or make a to-do list. Try to avoid checking or watching the clock during the night.
  • Increase your physical activity levels if you can and get as much fresh air and daylight as possible.
  • Have a regular bedtime routine - do something calming, like reading a magazine or having a bath. Research has shown that listening to music to help you relax can improve sleep patterns, so try listening to some soothing sounds before bed.
  • Caffeine makes you more alert and can keep you awake, so avoid coffee and other caffeinated drinks 6hrs before you go to bed. Try swapping for herbal teas such as camomile instead.
  • Aim to go to bed and get up around the same time every day, even at weekends. Avoid napping in the daytime, as this can disturb your sleep routine and make it harder to sleep at night.
  • Focus on your breath with some controlled deep breathing. You can also try some visualisation by imagining a relaxing scene. These can help you to feel calmer and cope with worries and anxieties.
  • Avoid heavy meals and intense exercise 2hrs before bed. Try some gentle stretching instead to help your body relax.
  • Electronic devices like mobile phones, tablets and TVs emit blue light, which makes you more alert and awake. Avoid looking at screens 2hrs before bed and make your bedroom a strict no-screen zone.
  • Stimulants like alcohol and nicotine can affect your sleep quality, so you may find eliminating these leads to a better night’s sleep.
  • Make your sleeping environment as comfortable as possible, by ensuring it is not too hot or cold and minimising noise and light.

It is scientifically proven that your immune system uses sleep as time for repair. Good sleep also improves your brain performance and mood.

What happens when you don't get enough sleep?

Not getting enough high-quality sleep over time can increase your risk of depression, weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and memory problems. It can even make you look older too!

A lack of sleep can impede on your everyday life in several ways:

  • Lowering your energy levels and impacting your mood.
  • Causing you to feel more irritable, depressed, anxious or unable to cope.
  • Making it difficult to concentrate, focus on tasks, think clearly and make decisions.
  • Making mistakes and having accidents are more likely.

Further support

You might be worried about whether poor sleep might impact your cancer treatment. Know that no matter what you're going through, you are not alone. Chat to our specialists online or call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00. It is free to call, and lines are open from 8 am to 8 pm, seven days a week.

If changing your sleeping habits proves ineffective, you have had trouble sleeping for months, or your insomnia is affecting your daily life in a way that makes it hard for you to cope, then go and see your GP. On the other hand, if you are getting plenty of sleep (i.e. nine hours plus) and still not feel recharged, then there may be an underlying medical reason for this that needs further investigation, so please visit your GP.

That's it this week, have a wonderful happy New Year, speak soon.