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Yoga for Sleep Quality Among Cancer Survivors

Poor sleep quality is one of the most distressing negative side effects experienced by cancer patients before, during, and after treatment. 30-90% of cancer survivors often suffer from disordered sleep where they have difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, or nap excessively (Savard & Morin, 2001; Ancoli-Israel, 2009a; Palesh et al., 2010; Savard et al., 2011).  Poor sleep dramatically increases a person’s risk of other major health issues. 

Typical treatment guidelines are now recommending synthetic hypnotics & sedative drugs, lifestyle interventions, and cognitive behavioral talk therapy (CBT).  The problem is pharmaceutical drugs cause too many problems and do not cure the root cause of the sleep problem. They are toxic to the brain and spinal cord, are extremely addictive, and interfere with most other medications. In the long run hypnotics and sedatives worsen the sleep problem since they damage the natural circadian rhythm and hence, make it difficult to wean off.  CBT can be extremely helpful but is not always appealing to everyone (Savard et al., 2001; Ancoli-Israel et al., 2006; Berger et al., 2007; Palesh et al., 2010; Belleville et al., 2011; Cheng & Dizon, 2012).  Lifestyle interventions may include regular exercise, dietary changes, and yoga (Schutte-Rodin et al., 2008).  

The 1000+ year tradition of yoga is now a budding topic in scientific literature and becoming increasingly accepted for its therapeutic use in traditional Western medicine. At its core, yoga is a mind-body practice, characterized as a mindfulness mode of exercise (Bower et al., 2005; Mustian et al., 2007; 2009; Elkins et al., 2010). 

The most popular form, Hatha yoga, is the foundation of all yoga styles.  It includes both Gentle Hatha and Restorative yoga. Gentle Hatha yoga is about tuning into your body and breath without raising your heart rate (like in high-intensity exercise) or placing your leg behind their head. 

Restorative yoga focuses on total relaxation of the body and mind.  It involves only 5 or 6 poses that are supported by props, rather than your muscles, so that you can fully relax and rest. These yoga poses include light twists, seated forward folds, and gentle backbends, and are held for 5 minutes or longer. 

The combination of Gentle Hatha and Restorative yoga are an efficacious method for improving sleep quality.  It uses a holistic sequence of meditative, breathing, and physical alignment movements that require active and passive engagement of skeletal muscles. The 1st nationwide, multicenter, phase III randomized controlled trial by Mustian and colleagues (2013) demonstrated cancer survivors experienced significant improvements in sleep quality and daytime energy because of yoga alone versus standard-of-care treatment.  The cancer survivors were randomized to 2 75-minute yoga sessions each week consisting of pranayama (breathing exercises), 16 Gentle Hatha and Restorative yoga asanas (postures), and meditation for one month. The yoga intervention group also decreased their sleep medication use by 21%, while the standard-of-care (non-yoga) group increased their medication(s) by 5% (Joseph, 1983; Cohen et al., 2004; Rosenbaum et al., 2004; Duncan 2008, Carson et al., 2009; Danhauer et al., 2009; Vadiraja et al., 2009; Chandwani et al., 2010; Speed-Andrews et al., 2010; Ülger & Yağlı, 2010; Bower et al., 2012). 

By integrating yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation into one’s regular routine, we can successfully begin to treat sleep problems in cancer survivors.


Dr. Bhandari and the Advanced Health Team Are Here to Support Your Health.

Our expert team of integrative holistic practitioners work with patients suffering from chronic health concern.  We help our patients reverse disease by better understanding how the body optimally functions and providing personalized treatment plan—a plan that removes a lot of the common food items that are making them sick.  To learn more and book an appointment, contact Advanced Health or call 1-415-506-9393.

Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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