Melatonin and the Cancer Connection

healthy-tips-for night-shift-workers

Could our 24-7 lifestyles be putting us at risk of getting cancer?
Late nights working under fluorescent lights, in front of computer screens, traveling to different time zones. What is the connection between these and cancer?

Medical doctor Eva Schernhammer has spent over ten years asking herself the same question, “Could working late night shifts cause cancer?” In 1992 she worked all night shifts, 10 times a month in an Austrian hospital. Along side her, colleagues would work all night under harsh fluorescent lights. Then, out of the blue, two of them developed cancer. These were healthy women in their 30’s, with apparently no risk factors and no family history of cancer. In early 2000 Eva started working at Channing Laboratory, Harvard Medical School in the US. This lab is home to the Nurses’ Health Study and is one of the largest data banks of women’s health ever created. She was in the perfect place to study records of over 78,000 nurses, the results of which were astonishing:

Nurses who had worked night shifts for 30 years or more had a 36% higher rate of breast cancer, compared with those who had worked just days. Three years later she continued her study by reviewing 13 new trials on night-shift workers and cancer risk.
In September 2005 the results where published and made waves among the medical world. Up to 48% rise in breast cancer with women who worked nights shifts and a 35% increase in colon cancer. Dr. Schernhammer had proven that exposure to artificial light at night raises the risk of certain types of cancer.

The Melatonin Link

Artifical light at night inhibits the hormone melatonin, one of the body’s most effective anticancer agents. At night when we sleep we produce melatonin from the tiny, but extemely important gland in the brain called the pineal gland. It is darkness that triggers this production, slowing the main functions of the body and lowering the blood pressure. Cells throughout the body have melatonin receptors, including cancer cells. When the melatonin hormone reacts with them, the cell division is dramatically slowed down and has a calming effect, especially on our repoductive hormones, helping to protect against ovarian, edometrial, breast and testicular cancers. Recent studies have found that melatonin also boosts the production of our immune cells, especially a group known as interleukin-2, whose job is to recognise and destroy unhealthy cells which if left will often lead to cancer. To date, melatonin has been found to directly inhibit the growth of cancer.

Our Internal Rhythms

All of us have an internal clock or rhythm, which has evolved over thousands of years. This clock helps to keep the body awake and alert during the day and become relaxed and sleepy at night. This natural pattern is called the ‘circadian system’, which is repeated approximately every 24 hours and is directly linked to the solar day. The brain’s master clock sits directly above the brain stem and is home to approximately 20,000 nerve cells, whose job is to receive and transmit information to all parts of the body. What particular information it sends depends exclusively on how much light comes through the optic nerve or eye. When light from a bulb or sunlight is recognized melatonin production declines, however, when it is dark, melatonin levels increase, usually peaking in the middle of the night. Exposure late at night to any light stimulation will screw up our internal rhythm and our melatonin levels. This includes watching TV, reading and working late into the night in front of your computer screen!

According to new figures released in January 2006 by Cancer Research UK, showed that in 2002 nearly 3800 women in the United Kingdom were diagnosed with breast cancer, compared with 2910 five years earlier, yet doctors still do not know what causes the desease. Melatonin levels could be the answer!

Why Melatonin Levels Become Low

• Aging

• Not getting enough sunlight

• Irregular sleeping habits

• Stress

• Time zone travel, frequent jet lag

• Dietary factors, such as coffee and alcohol

• Night shift work –

Harvard University researchers found that nurses who worked the night shift at least three times a month for 15 years or more were 35% more likely to develop colon cancer than nurses who never worked nights.

• Sleeping in a lit room –
melatonin levels decline within 10 minutes of turning on a light at night.

Improving Sleep and Melatonin Production with Ayurveda

Sleep problems affect one third of us. One of the worst forms, chronic sleep maintenance insomnia, in which the sufferers regularly spend long periods awake after initially falling asleep, is the commonest and hardest to treat, affecting 5% of the population.
Charaka Samhita, the oldest of the Sanskrit medical treatises of Ayurveda, the health science of the Vedic civilization, states, “A man sleeps when, with an exhausted mind, his sensory faculties and organs of action detach from their objects.” Charaka implies that as long as the mind is constantly ‘thinking’, sleep will not come. Sleep is healing, not only because it permits the body to physically rest, but also because it allows the body to produce the correct melatonin levels, boosting our immune system and decreasing our cancer risk. In Ayurveda we recognise that sleep brought on by the nature of the night itself is true sleep, called reparative sleep. Sleep during the day, is caused by tamas (i.e. the quality of inertia in the mind, brought on by dulling foods, drink, medications and activities) is the root of depression and desease. The Ayurvedic physicians understood that the circadian rhythms, the cycles of light and dark, are the synchronizers for our best sleep, and that we do our most important sleeping when we are actually rested. Unfortunately, our 24-7 lifestyles can be all too stimulating. When it is time to wind down, we find ourselves unable to relax, our minds buzzing about what happened during the day, who said what and how we will respond tomorrow. We find ourselves lying awake, tossing and turning, becoming more anxious. We become frustrated because sleep evades us and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle.

Bad habits to avoid if you have trouble sleeping are watching television, reading, or planning your schedule for the next day just before you go to be. Gradually these habits and going in bed will become associated with wakefulness rather than sleep.

Most people can change several factors to improve the quality of their rest at night and to prevent age-related sleep disorders. First, change your attitude toward sleep. Stop using the word “sleep” and substitute the word “rest.” Take the attitude that you are simply going to put yourself in a comfortable, quiet, dark place for six to eight hours, and let go. Thoughts, and those moments of silence between waking, dreaming and sleeping are all as important as unconscious, dead-to-the-world sleep. Stop judging how you slept. Adopt the attitude that as long as you spent six hours in a dark room being quiet, that you are ready for your day.

The ideal time for rest according to Ayurveda, is from around 9 or 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. In these six to seven hours, more can be accomplished than from midnight to 9 a.m., and endocrinologists studying the circadian hormonal fluctuations of cortisol and melatonin would agree.

Early to bed, early to rise – establish a regular pattern. Get up at the same time every day, whether or not you think you slept well. Studies have shown that almost everyone functions well the next day, even if they have the perception they have not slept a wink. Go to bed early enough to get the amount of “rest” you would like. Most people with chronic sleep disorders are afraid to go to bed and just lie there, so they will put off going to bed. If this describes you, start moving your retiring time earlier by ten to fifteen minutes per day. In a couple of weeks, you will have painlessly reset your biological clock to a healthier pattern. This will increase melatonin production, which in turn will promote deep and restful sleep.

If you find yourself lying awake, start to observe your breath, try not to control your breath, just let it come and go naturally. Enjoy the feeling of your body resting. If you find yourself thinking thoughts that stimulate mental activity, come back to the breath.

Cultivate bedtime routines that are conducive to this attitude. Use the evening hours for light, enjoyable activities, some light yoga and breathing techniques, not for heavy exercise, work, or TV. Listen to soothing music. Stay away from stimulating drinks and food. Take a cup of hot milk (with a teaspoon of poppy seeds), perhaps a hot bath or shower using relaxing oils, such as lavender, sandalwood, or frankincense. Use natural fibers such as cotton for your bed linens and bedclothes.


• Welcome the night…..Sleep in a room that is in complete darkness. If you have street lights right outside your window, consider investing in blinds or extra thick curtains.
• Go for red……If you have to get up in the night use a light to find your way that has been fitted with a red lightbulb, which emit long wavelengths, harming melatonin production the least. The worst bulbs were fluorescent and halogen.
• Relax……If you cannot sleep, do not turn on a bright light and read. In some people it only takes 10 minutes of artificial light to suppress melatonin levels. Instead try some relaxation techniques of visualization and breathing. Do not try to plan out your day ahead!
• Plenty of Zzzzz…..A new study with women has found that the more hours spent sleeping a sound sleep the less chance you have of getting (one-third) breast cancer.
• Get some rays……If it is a sunny morning, take ten to fifteen minutes to sit outside or go for a walk. The bright morning light sends a signal to the brain. This helps the circadian system to reset itself. If it is a dark wintery morning, and you have to leave for work, try going out at lunchtime.
• Even more rays……As with everything else, as we get older the body’s systems get slower. The brains master clock shrinks and slows down, making receptors less alert to light signals. Mariano Figueiro PhD, a researcher at the Lighting Research Centre in New York, says “Due to eye changes, a 60 year old gets one-third the amount of light that a 20 year old gets”. If it is hard to get out and about, then open the curtains or blinds and sit in front of the window to get maximum light.

Are supplements the answer?

Melatonin is available in pill form, so why shouldn’t we just take it as a supplement? The experts do not recommend taking them, Dr. Blask, a neuroendocrinologist of the Bassett Research Insitute in New York explains that melatonin is a very powerful hormone and at this time, they just do not know if it safe to take on a regular basis. The most resent research on patients with lung cancer and melanoma is that it can help the quality of life and survival rates. It also helps to improve the appetite and other side effects in patients that were undergoing chemotherapy treatment. It is always a good idea to check with your doctor first before adding any new supplements on a daily basis.

How to Boost Melatonin Naturally

Yoga meditation is natural way to boost melatonin. Anyone who meditates regularly will tell you how it has a calming effect on the mind and body. It helps to reduce stress levels and helps us relax and rejuevenate. Now, recent research shows that meditation also increases levels of melatonin, which in turn will support our immune system, inhibit the growth of cancer cells, and improves energy.

In the yoga tradition, meditation techniques are used to direct energy flow through seven energy centers in the body, or chakras, and selectively activate or suppress their associated glands. The pineal gland corresponds to a chakra located at the top of the head and is believed to influence happiness and joy.

Scientists researched the link between melatonin production and meditation in 1995 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre’s Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. Urine samples were collected first thing after an overnight sleep and tested for blood melatonin levels. They found that those who had meditated had significantly higher levels compared with those who had

How to Relax and Become Mindful

Here is a simple relaxation technique that you can try. For maximum benefit, try to meditate for twenty minutes to half an hour before you go to sleep.

1. Choose a quite, warm room and a comfortable place to sit. Whether you sit on the floor or on a chair, make sure your head, neck and back are in an upright position. If you wish, put on some soft music.
2. Observe your breathing, focusing on the sensation of air moving in and out of your lungs as you breathe. Feel your belly rise and fall, the air enter your nostrils and leave your mouth. Pay attention to the way each breath changes and is different.
3. Now take your focus of concentration to the tip of your nostrils, watch and feel the air as you breathe it in. Keep observing this process for 5 or 6 breaths.
4. Now take your observation to the flow of air up the nostrils and down the wind- pipe and feel the lungs, chest and belly expand. Feel the power in your breath. Keep doing this for 5 or 6 breaths.
5. Watch the outward breath now, observe as the body expells the air in the lungs and intervene by pushing all the air out. Repeat this 5 or 6 times.
6. Take you mind to the place just after the exhalation, you will notice that the breathing stops for just 1 or 2 seconds, almost as if the body rests before repeating the process. Draw you mind into this quite place. Stay there for as long as you wish.
7. When you feel ready, take a deep breath in and exhale. Sit for a minute or two, becoming aware of where you are. Get up gradually or go to bed and SLEEP!

Jennifer Beckman is an Ayurvedic Practitioner, Yoga Teacher and director of The Vedic Cultural Fellowship