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Tibetan Yoga May Help Women Being Treated With Chemotherapy Sleep Better

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A small study suggests that practicing Tibetan yoga twice a week may improve sleep in women being treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The study was published online on Sept. 20, 2017 by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “Randomized trial of Tibetan yoga in patients with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy.”

Chemotherapy causes a number of side effects in many women, including problems sleeping and fatigue.

In this study, 227 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer (stage I to stage III) who were being treated with chemotherapy at the MD Anderson Cancer Center were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • One group was taught Tibetan yoga one-on-one by a trained instructor, with each class focusing on controlled breathing, visualization, meditation, and yoga postures. The women participated in four 75- to 90-minute classes with an instructor while they were being treated with chemotherapy, followed by three booster sessions over the next 6 months. The instructors encouraged the women to practice Tibetan yoga at home.
  • The second group was taught a gentle stretching program and encouraged to do the stretches at home. The women participated in four 75- to 90-minute classes while they were being treated with chemotherapy, followed by three booster sessions over the next 6 months.
  • The third group was told they were on the waiting list for the yoga class and were given information on how to ease sleep problems.

Tibetan yoga is similar to other types of yoga in that you do a series of poses, also called postures, and link your breathing to your movement and meditation.

Before the women were split into groups, they completed questionnaires that asked about their sleep quality and how many times they woke up during the night. The women also wore a watch for 7 days that recorded their rest and activity cycles 24 hours day. The researchers used the information from the questionnaires and from the watch to assess the women’s sleep quality. The same assessments were done one week after the yoga or stretching classes ended, as well as 3, 6, and 12 months later.

The researchers found that women in the Tibetan yoga group reported fewer daily sleep problems 1 week after the classes ended compared to women in the other two groups.

The researchers also found that there were sleep benefits over time for women who practiced Tibetan yoga at least 2 times per week. Compared to women who practiced less often, these women said they had fewer sleep problems 3 months after chemotherapy ended, as well as better sleep quality 6 months after chemotherapy ended.

"While the effects of this intervention were modest, it is encouraging to see that the women who practiced yoga outside of class had improved sleep outcomes over time," said Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D. professor of palliative, rehabilitation, and integrative medicine at MD Anderson.

Other small studies have suggested that yoga can improve quality of life, as well as ease sleeping problems in women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, and this study echoes those results.

If you’re having problems sleeping because of breast cancer treatment, you might want to talk to your doctor about yoga to see if it’s right for you and your unique situation. If you're thinking about doing yoga, consider a class that is taught by an instructor familiar with the special needs of breast cancer patients. An experienced instructor can tailor poses to accommodate any physical limitations you might have because of your treatment. Some breast cancer patients can have arm and shoulder problems that could be aggravated by some yoga poses.

In the Complementary & Holistic Medicine page on yoga, you can learn more, including:

  • what to expect
  • how to find a qualified practitioner
  • important things to consider before trying yoga

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