Tai chi can help breast cancer survivors get some sleep says new study

Tai chi is a slow-moving, ancient martial art which is practiced to improve concentration, mindfulness, patience and transference of Qi energy in the Oriental East.
Picture by: SHENG LI / REUTERS

Tai chi, the traditional Chinese exercise which focuses on posture, breathing and meditation, could be beneficial in helping relieve insomnia in breast cancer survivors.

That’s according to a new study from American university UCLA that adds to previous research which has already found tai chi to beneficial in a range of other health conditions, including alleviating neck pain, boosting cognitive function as we age, reducing the risk of falls in seniors, and lowering the risk of stroke and heart disease.

For the new study the team recruited 90 breast cancer survivors age 42 to 83.

All participants had trouble sleeping three or more times per week and also reported feeling depressed and fatigue during the daytime, common problems for the 30 percent of breast cancer survivors who have insomnia. A lack of sleep can also lead to an increased risk of disease.

Participants were randomly assigned to either weekly tai chi sessions (of a westernized form called tai chi chih) or weekly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions, which involves identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviors that are affecting sleep.

All participants took part in the classes for three months. They were then evaluated over 12 months, with researchers assessing symptoms of insomnia as well as symptoms of fatigue and depression.

The team found that at the end of the study, tai chi appeared to be just as effective as CBT, which has so far been considered the “gold standard” treatment, and in both groups nearly half of participants (46.7 percent in the tai chi group; 43.7 percent in the CBT group) continued to show strong, clinically significant improvement in insomnia symptoms.

There were also improvements in symptoms of depression and fatigue.

Although the American Academy of Sleep Medicine considers CBT the best treatment for insomnia, Dr. Michael Irwin, the study’s lead author, pointed out that it’s too expensive for most.

Free or low-cost tai chi classes however, are often offered at locations such as libraries, community centers or outdoors in parks, with videos also available on YouTube and smartphone apps to learn and practice at home.

Irwin and colleagues also found in their previous research that tai chi could help reduce inflammation in breast cancer survivors and may have potential to help lower the risk of breast cancer and its recurrence, good news for the many participants who continued to practice on their own after the study had 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.

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