For breast cancer survivors who struggle with sleep, a new study suggests that tai chi might calm their restless nights.
Researchers found this slow-moving form of meditation was as good as talk therapy and more effective than medication in treating insomnia and reducing the risk for sleep loss-related health issues, including depression, fatigue and a weakened immune system.
"Breast cancer survivors often don't just come to physicians with insomnia. They have insomnia, fatigue and depression," said study leader Dr. Michael Irwin. He directs UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in Los Angeles.
"And this intervention, tai chi, impacted all those outcomes in a similar way, with benefits that were as robust as the gold standard treatment for insomnia [talk therapy]," Irwin added in a UCLA news release.
Previous studies have shown that tai chi can help relax the body and the mind. This practice can also slow breathing and reduce inflammation, the study authors said.
To investigate the effects of tai chi on sleep, the researchers asked 90 breast cancer survivors with insomnia and symptoms of depression and daytime sleepiness to take weekly cognitive behavioral therapy sessions ("talk therapy"), or weekly classes in a Westernized form of tai chi for a period of three months.
The participants, who ranged in age from 42 to 83, reported on their insomnia and other symptoms at regular intervals over the course of 12 months.
The findings showed that nearly half of the participants in both groups had significant improvement in their symptoms 15 months later.
Currently, cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the best form of treatment for insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. During treatment, people learn to identify and change the harmful thoughts and behaviors that are preventing them from getting enough sleep, the researchers explained.
But this type of talk therapy may be too expensive for some people. Others with insomnia may have trouble finding a trained professional who can help, the study authors added.
"Because of those limitations, we need community-based interventions like tai chi," said Irwin, who is also a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The findings were published May 10 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.