Research has shown that about 30 percent of breast cancer survivors suffer from insomnia, which can significantly contribute to depression, fatigue, and a greater risk of succumbing to the disease.
Now a new study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) shows that tai chi, a form of slow-moving meditation, relieves insomnia just as well as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of talk therapy that involves identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviors.
CBT, while long considered the “gold standard” treatment for insomnia, unfortunately has some downfalls: It can be expensive and there are not enough CBT-trained professionals in some areas.
“Because of those limitations, we need community-based interventions like tai chi,” said Dr. Michael Irwin, the study’s lead author and a University of California, Los Angeles professor of psychiatry and director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, show that tai chi leads to significant improvements in sleep health in breast cancer survivors with insomnia, with the additional benefits of improving depressive symptoms and fatigue.
Furthermore, both tai chi and cognitive behavioral therapy show similar rates of clinically significant improvements in symptoms or remission of insomnia. Both tai chi and CBT showed enduring benefits over one year.
Free or low-cost tai chi classes are often offered at libraries, community centers, or outdoors in parks. Do-it-yourselfers can find instructional videos on YouTube and smartphone apps.
In previous research, Irwin and colleagues found that tai chi, which relaxes the body and slows breathing, reduced inflammation in breast cancer survivors with the potential to lower risk for disease including cancer recurrence.
The new study involved 90 breast cancer survivors who were having trouble sleeping three or more times per week and who also reported feeling depressed and fatigue during the daytime.
The participants ranged in age from 42 to 83 and were randomly assigned to weekly CBT sessions or weekly tai chi instruction for three months. The tai chi group learned a Westernized form of the practice called tai chi chih.
The researchers evaluated the participants at intervals for the next 12 months to determine if they were having insomnia symptoms, as well as symptoms of fatigue and depression, and if they showed improvement.
At 15 months, nearly half of the participants in both groups (46.7 percent in the tai chi group; 43.7 percent in the behavioral therapy group) continued to show robust, clinically significant improvement in their insomnia symptoms.
“Breast cancer survivors often don’t just come to physicians with insomnia. They have insomnia, fatigue and depression,” said Irwin, who is also a member of the University of California, Los Angeles Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “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.”
Many of the tai chi participants continued to practice on their own after the study concluded. “They often are seeking health-promoting activities because they recognize that the mindfulness approach, or health-based lifestyle interventions, may actually protect them,” said Irwin.