Cancer and circadian rhythm: Can chronotherapy benefit patients with cancer?
05/19/2020 // Divina Ramirez // Views

The treatment for cancer is neither in the drugs nor in the radiation after all – it's in the timing. According to a recent article published in Psychology Today, a leading magazine on behavioral science, chronotherapy may be used as a natural and non-invasive treatment for cancer.

The circadian clock and human health

The body's circadian clock oversees several processes that are critical for healthy cell function, according to Michael Breus, a licensed sleep specialist and the author of the article. This internal clock, for one thing, dictates the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. In people who frequently experience sleep problems, the disruptions can often be traced back to the circadian clock.

This biological clock is also highly sensitive and fine-tuned, such that an all-nighter can almost instantly throw you off course. People who severely lack sleep, or those who have gone 24 hours without sleep, for that matter, tend to experience side effects like forgetfulness, inability to concentrate and loss of balance, among other short-term consequences.

Although the circadian rhythm may also be affected by environmental factors like air pollution, disruptions in sleep-wake cycles are more commonly caused by poor lifestyle habits. When these persist, the body suffers as a result.

For one thing, the body recovers best as you sleep, when it can direct most of its energies to tissue repair, hormone production and blood pressure regulation, among other vital biological functions.

When this recovery period is disrupted, you become more susceptible to a host of diseases including chronic ones like cancer. In fact, a recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that light exposure at the “wrong” times, especially in the evening, significantly heightened the risk of invasive breast cancer in women.


Circadian rhythm disruptions are also linked to other types of cancer including prostate cancer, brain cancer and leukemia. These disruptions are also believed to be the leading cause of cancer incidence in shift workers who tend to work at night rather than in the day. (Related: Maintaining a normal circadian rhythm a key habit for preventing tumors.)

What is chronotherapy?

Chronotherapy is a behavioral technique that typically seeks to “correct” a dysfunctional circadian rhythm. This method was first introduced in the 1970s, and it has since been used to treat sleep disorders, as well as mood disorders like clinical depression.

In chronotherapy, bedtime is delayed by three-hour increments every day to create a 27-hour day. The method is repeated each day until the “correct” bedtime is reached, which is then followed by the re-establishment of the normal 24-hour day.

Although it has been introduced in the 1970s, chronotherapy remains a relatively new method of treatment, especially for chronic diseases like cancer. With regards to cancer treatment, several studies have examined the effects of chronotherapy when combined with harmful cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation and synthetic medication.

Chronotherapy may be an effective treatment for cancer patients

Cancer cells, like healthy cells, are also subject to changes in the body's circadian rhythm. A sustained lack of sleep or irregular sleep cycle allows cancer cells to proliferate. This is why chronotherapy ought to be utilized as a natural and non-invasive treatment for cancer patients, according to Breus.

Plus, unlike conventional cancer treatments, chronotherapy allows the body to recover at its own pace without the added weight of harmful side effects like cognitive dysfunction and heart problems. The natural restoration of the body's circadian rhythm may also enhance immune functions and activate natural killer cells that combat tumors.

Chronotherapy remains a fairly recent method of treatment for cancer that is yet to be fine-tuned by sleep specialists and healthcare professionals. But even in its current form, chronotherapy can provide cancer patients a way to inhibit the spread of cancer cells and suppress tumor growth without the harmful side effects linked to conventional cancer treatments. has more stories on alternative cancer treatments and remedies.

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