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Ancient Practice May Improve Sleep Troubles in Breast Cancer Survivors

Tai Chi and Insomnia

Difficulty sleeping is a common problem for cancer patients. A moving meditation technique may help improve those restless nights.


Insomnia, or trouble sleeping, has been reported to be higher in cancer patients than in the general population, even 2 to 5 years after treatment is completed. Patients often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep during the night. Often, this leads to a reduced quality of life during the day as functioning is decreased, fatigue worsens, and may even interfere with self-care.

There are many potential causes of insomnia, including the presence of depression or anxiety, side effects of medications (especially hormonal therapy), or even pain.

Insomnia is often treated with medication, but as these have side effects of their own, many patients are searching for a more natural alternative. In addition to the usual recommendations, such as maintaining a regular sleep schedule and keeping the bedroom environment conducive to sleep, you may want to try an ancient exercise known as Tai Chi.

Tai Chi is well studied for helping relax the body and mind. The practice can also help slow breathing and reduce inflammation. Dr. Michael Irwin also suspected that slow-moving meditation would also be effective in decreasing sleep troubles.

Dr. Irwin’s team studied 90 breast cancer survivors as part of a UCLA study, all of whom had insomnia and symptoms of depression. The group was randomized to either take part in behavioral therapy sessions (also known as talk therapy) or weekly classes of a Westernized form of Tai Chi for a period of three months.

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Both groups showed significant improvement in their symptoms, even up to 15 months later.

"This intervention, tai chi, impacted all those outcomes in a similar way (as behavioral therapy), with benefits that were as robust as the gold standard treatment for insomnia [talk therapy]," Irwin says.

Tai chi, a mind-body practice which originated in China, is often described as "meditation in motion." It is a low-impact, slow-motion exercise which needs no specialized equipment. It can be easily adapted for anyone, even those confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.

Taking a class may be the best way to learn tai chi. Seeing a teacher in action, getting feedback, and experiencing the camaraderie of a group are all benefits. Ask about classes at your local YMCA, senior center, or community education center.

Journal Reference:
Michael R. Irwin et al. Tai Chi Chih Compared With Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for the Treatment of Insomnia in Survivors of Breast Cancer: A Randomized, Partially Blinded, Noninferiority Trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology, May 2017

Additional Resources:
Harvard Medical School

Photo Credit:
By Keith Weng - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons