Study Shows Tai Chi Restores Sleep Health

tai chi and sleep

Insomnia sufferers know the struggle – worrying about sleep loss makes getting to sleep at night even more difficult.  Research finds that 30% of breast cancer survivors with insomnia are also suffering from fatigue, higher risk of disease, and depression.

There is new research that offers hope, however.  A UCLA study found that tai chi, which is a combination of slow, fluid movements and meditation, has similar positive effects to cognitive behavioral therapy.  CBT is the gold standard and first line of treatment for insomnia, especially in cancer survivors.  Both tai chi and CBT show enduring benefits over the course of one year.

These results were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.  The findings showed significant improvements in sleep quality and the health of insomniac breast cancer survivors who practiced tai chi.  They saw further benefits in the improvement of depression and fatigue.  Both CBT and tai chi showed almost identical rates of improvements in insomnia symptoms and remission.

Many accrediting and authoritative agencies and institutions believe that CBT, which is a form of talk therapy, is the optimal choice for treatment in this population.  CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviors related to sleep, which are likely negatively affecting the ability to fall and stay asleep.

Unfortunately, however, CBT is often too expensive, and there are woefully few professionals who specialize in this field.  Dr. Michael Irwin, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says this means that many people are not getting the treatment they need because of finances, so these new findings suggest a more affordable, yet equally effective treatment alternative.

Dr. Irwin suggests that there is a need for community-based interventions like tai chi.  This practice is often free or at a low cost, and many can be found at community centers, in parks, or at libraries.  An additional benefit is that tai chi can be learned in the comfort of your own home using instructional videos.

In the past, Dr. Irwin and colleagues performed studies with tai chi and found that the relaxation techniques used in this art significantly slows the breathing, reduces inflammation in cancer survivors, and suggests a lower risk for disease and cancer recurrence.

For this most recent study, scientists recruited 90 breast cancer survivors to test the efficacy of tai chi on insomnia.  All recruits had difficulty sleeping at least three nights a week.  They also reported feeling symptoms of daytime fatigue and depression.  Respondents were aged between 42 and 83 years.  Each person was assigned at random either to receive weekly CBT or weekly tai chi instruction for a total of three months.  The tai chi taught in this setting was a Westernized form called tai chi chih.

Over the following 12 months, UCLA researchers evaluated each participant at regular intervals to look for any signs of insomnia, fatigue, or depression.  Further, they wanted to see if the participant was showing any amount of improvement.

After 15 months, approximately half of the recruits from both groups (43.7% in CBT an 46.7% in Tai chi) showed clinical improvement in their insomnia.

Dr. Irwin notes that those who survive breast cancer are not generally quick to go to a doctor with insomnia or depression.  These results impacted that outcome, with robust benefits in something outside the gold standard of treatment for insomnia.

Many of the recruits continued with their tai chi practice on their own after the completion of the study.  This reflects the motivation among those survivors.  For the most part, these survivors are frequently looking for healthy lifestyle and behavior changes that take a mindfulness approach, because they believe these methods to be ultimately helpful in protecting them against disease, decline, and recurrence.

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