Bright Light Therapy: Better Sleep For Cancer Survivors

Cancer survivors experience more sleep problems than most people. Up to 60% of them experience mild to severe insomnia with symptoms like difficulty falling asleep, inability to sleep through the night and daytime sleepiness. Some of the factors behind this include the cancer treatments administered and symptoms like fatigue and depression associated with cancer therapy. These problems can last for years after successful treatment. A new form of therapy, known as bright light, has shown overwhelmingly positive results for cancer survivors experiencing sleep issues.

Bright Light Therapy

The study involved the use systematic light exposure on 44 cancer survivors experiencing fatigue and insomnia. In particular researchers measured a specific metric known as sleep efficiency.

This concept is simply the amount of time you sleep while you are in bed. It is expressed as a ratio or percentage. If for instance you stayed in bed from 10am to 6pm but only sleep for 6 of those 8 hours, your sleep efficiency for the night is 75%. In the sturdy, researchers wanted to see the effect of bright light therapy on the participants’ sleep quality. They all had low sleep efficiency below what is medically recommended.   They divided the study participants into two groups.

One of the groups was exposed to 30 minutes of bright light from a light box every morning soon after waking up. The other group was exposed to dim red light for the same amount of time. At the end of the 4-week observation period the results were telling. Almost everyone in the group that was exposed to bright white light had their sleep efficiency return to normal levels (greater than 85%). Meanwhile the other group still had a low sleep efficiency score.

Higher Sleep Efficiency, Better Sleep

The improvement in sleep efficiency resulted in a corresponding improvement in overall sleep quality. The participants exposed to bright white light slept better and longer.

But there is a catch.

Three weeks after the end of the study when participants were no longer using light therapy, the positive effects had receded and their sleep efficiency had dropped to prior levels. This suggests that continuous light therapy may be necessary. Since most people may not have access to a light box, researchers recommend exposure to bright sunlight every morning after waking up.

Sleeping near a large window can help. You can also buy a light box online and use it under the direction of your doctor.

How Does Light Help?

Researchers suggest that the effect of light exposure on individuals with low sleep efficiency might improve the body’s own circadian rhythm.

In cancer survivors the rhythm is thrown off kilter by chemicals and spending a lot of time indoors. Exposure to bright light in the morning can help the body learn how to rest up properly at night and stay alert during the day.

Interestingly, the same restorative effect has been noted with other groups such as elderly patients with dementia.  It has also shown some benefits for many people with chronic insomnia.

Note that the study has some limitations and is not definitive. It simply lays the ground for larger and more rigorous studies. But it provides some insights into how cancer survivors can improve their mental and physical health by enhancing sleep quality.

Sleeping Environment

Insomnia in cancer survivors (and anyone else) is not a one-problem-one-solution issue. So using light therapy only may not be very effective in the long term. Combine it with other solutions.

For instance, you can try things like meditation and yoga to help you relax and fall asleep more easily. It is also important to stay active through regular exercise. It will help you sleep better. It is also very important that your sleeping environment be optimal for sleep.

Make sure the room is cool, as dark as possible and quiet. You can also try listening to relaxing sleep sounds like white noise or rain sounds. Also make sure you are sleeping on a comfortable mattress that feels comfortable and has good support for your back. A low quality mattress can actually worsen insomnia. It makes it harder to fall asleep and keeps you tossing and turning at night.

If you often wake up with a sore back or neck, time to get a new mattress. Finally, keep gadgets away. They make it harder to fall asleep. The blue light emitted reduces levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone. This makes your brain and body more alert. Browsing through social media and work emails doesn’t help you relax either. Don’t just put the phone on your bedside. That’s not far enough. Experts say it is best to keep it away from the room. That way, you won’t be tempted to pick it up when you hear a notification. Click here to find out more about the study mentioned in the article.

Want to know more?

Click here to find out how to take the perfect nap that your body needs.

Who is the writer?

Trish Boudreaux, which is her pen name, is a New Orleans native who works in the insurance industry. She is married and enjoys reviewing and testing out new mattresses in a quest for the best night’s sleep.  She is honest and upfront without being pushy or sales driven.