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Yoga Improves Sleep Quality in Cancer Patients With Sleep Disruption

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Key Points

  • Yoga patients had significantly greater improvements in global sleep quality, subjective sleep quality, daytime dysfunction, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, and sleep medication use compared with control patients.
  • Actigraphy showed that the yoga group had significantly greater improvements in wake after sleep onset and sleep efficiency compared with the control group.

It is estimated that 30% to 90% of cancer patients experience impairment of sleep quality post-treatment and such impairment can be severe enough to increase morbidity and mortality. Preliminary evidence indicates that yoga may improve sleep in cancer patients. In a study reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Karen M. Mustian, PhD, MPH, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, and colleagues compared the effects of a standardized yoga intervention vs standard care on global sleep quality in patients with cancer experiencing sleep disruption. They found that yoga participants had significantly greater improvements in global sleep quality, subjective sleep quality, daytime dysfunction, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, and medication use.

Study Details

In this study, 410 patients with moderate or greater sleep disruption between 2 and 24 months after surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy were randomized to standard care (n = 204) or standard care plus a 4-week yoga intervention (n = 206). The yoga intervention used the Yoga for Cancer Survivors (YOCAS) program consisting of pranayama (breathing exercises), 16 gentle hatha and restorative yoga asanas (postures), and meditation.

Participants attended two 75-minute sessions per week. Standard care consisted of standard follow-up care provided by treating oncologists as appropriate for patients’ individual diagnoses. The primary outcome measure was global sleep quality score on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). The subscale scores of global sleep quality characteristics were secondary endpoints. Objective sleep characteristics were assessed by actigraphy.

Patients had a mean age of 54 years, 96% were women, and 75% had breast cancer. There were no significant differences between groups in sex, age, race/ethnicity, marital status, education level, employment status, cancer type, cancer stage, previous cancer treatments, current hormone therapy, time since first cancer treatment, Karnofsky performance status, or exercise status.

Yoga patients attended an average of 6.5 of the 8 prescribed sessions. Patients in the yoga group were told that they could practice the yoga they learned in class on their own; daily diaries showed that they had 3 sessions combining class-based and home-based yoga each week for an average of 182 minutes with a perceived exertion rating of 3.4 (moderate). In the control group, seven patients reported an average of 20 minutes of yoga one time each week with a perceived exertion rating of 1.0 (very weak) during the study period.

Improved Sleep Quality

Compared with the control group, the yoga group had significantly greater improvements in global sleep quality (P < .01) and in the secondary outcome measures of daytime dysfunction (P < .01), subjective sleep quality (P < .05), and sleep medication use (P < .05). Yoga patients exhibited large improvements in sleep quality compared with baseline (d = 0.62), suggesting that the improvement was clinically significant, whereas improvement from baseline in the control group was less robust (d = 0.37).

Yoga patients reduced sleep medication use by 21% per week, and control patients increased sleep medication use by 5% per week. Overall, 90% of the yoga group found yoga useful for improving their sleep quality, with 100% stating that they would recommend yoga to other cancer survivors with sleep problems and 63% stating they would highly recommend it.

Actigraphy

Actigraphy studies showed that the yoga group had significantly greater improvements in wake after sleep onset (P < .01) and sleep efficiency (< .01) compared with the control group. Patients in the yoga group who had 60 minutes or more of wakefulness after sleep onset or a sleep efficiency of ≤ 60% at baseline showed the greatest reductions in wake after sleep onset and the greatest improvements in sleep efficiency.

One patient had supraventricular tachycardia during the study period, which was considered grade 2 and unrelated to the study intervention. No other serious adverse events were reported.

The investigators concluded,Yoga, specifically the YOCAS program, is a useful treatment for improving sleep quality and reducing sleep medication use among cancer survivors.” They noted that further phase III studies are needed to replicate their findings, assess the effects of increased length and intensity of yoga, provide long-term follow-up of the sustainability of benefits, and to compare yoga with such established treatments as cognitive behavioral therapy and drug treatments. They also stated that additional research should examine the potential impact of yoga on cancer recurrence and survival rates.

The study was supported by the National Cancer Institute and the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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