Tai chi beats insomnia in breast cancer survivors

written by Meena Azzollini

Beautiful woman doing qi gong tai chi exercise at home


We have all experienced some nights when we can’t sleep at all. There are many reasons for that – from stress and worry to eating particular kinds of foods – and in most cases changes in lifestyle habits can restore normal sleep patterns.

But in the case of chronic insomnia, you are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep at night over an extended period of time. This is frustrating and can lead to many health problems.

Fatigue and insomnia are common among breast cancer survivors. Of the 30 per cent of breast cancer survivors who suffer from insomnia, sleepless nights can lead to depression, more fatigue and an increased risk of disease.

Tai chi shows promising results for breast cancer survivors, not only for treating insomnia but has the added beneficial effect on depression and fatigue which are common problems for those who have survived breast cancer.

Although medication has been used to treat insomnia in people who do not have breast cancer, very few studies have shown the efficacy of medication in treating insomnia related to breast cancer.

A recent research from UCLA shows that Tai Chi, a slow moving form of meditation is just as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy, in promoting improvements in sleep quality in breast cancer survivors with insomnia.

Cognitive behavioural therapy has been regarded as one of the best treatment methods showing lasting benefits over one year. The approach involves identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviours which affect the ability to sleep. But this method is expensive for some people and there is a shortage of trained professionals.

Previous studies on tai chi have shown that this ancient Chinese practice which relaxes the body and slows breathing, reduced inflammation in breast cancer survivors. This has the potential to lower the risk of disease including cancer reoccurrence.

With all these aspects, researchers tested the effect of tai chi on insomnia on 90 breast cancer survivors, aged 42 to 83 years, who had trouble sleeping three or more times per week. They also reported feeling depressed and fatigued during daytime.

The participants were randomly assigned into two groups. One group practiced tai chi chih instruction for three months, which is the westernised form of the original practice.

The other group was assigned to weekly cognitive behavioural sessions.

Both groups were evaluated at intervals for 12 months to investigate if they were having any insomnia problems along with depression and fatigue and to understand if they showed any improvements.

At 15 months more than half of the participants in both the groups continued to show significant improvement in their insomnia symptoms.

Many of the tai chi participants continued their practice even after the study concluded. This reflects the motivation breast cancer survivors have in seeking health promoting activities and knowing the mindfulness and health-based lifestyles will help and protect them in the long term.

Tai chi shows promising results for breast cancer survivors, not only for treating insomnia but has the added beneficial effect on depression and fatigue which are common problems for those who have survived breast cancer.

Tai chi is as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy in treating breast cancer related insomnia providing patients with a low cost alternative which can be accessed anywhere – from libraries and community programs to instructional videos in the comfort of ones’ Home.

The slow, deliberate movements of tai chi have been known to improve many mental and physical ailments in people of all ages and clearly this form of moving meditation provides much need relief from insomnia and those frustrating sleepless nights.

Source: Journal of Clinical Oncology

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Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!