Not getting enough rest raises the risk of pancreatic cancer, especially for women. The link between sleep and pancreatic cancer seems to be the hormone leptin.
Leptin is an appetite-regulating hormone. Made in the fat cells themselves, this hormone sends a message to the brain from your belly fat essentially saying, "OK, we've had enough. You can stop making the rest of the body hungry now." This substance binds to the receptors for a compound called neuropeptide Y, which literally makes you ache to eat, anandamide, which triggers the "munchies" in people who smoke marijuana, and alpha-MSH, another appetite suppressant. The effects of this fat-derived neurotransmitter are long-term. You may not want to skip the very next meal after leptin levels go up, but over time, you will eat less.
Scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and the Harvard University Medical School in Boston tested the idea that not getting enough sleep raises leptin levels. They had volunteers in the sleep lab for two nights getting normal amounts of rest. Then they kept the volunteers up so they only got four hours of sleep for four nights in a row. As a reward, some (but not all, for reasons to be explained in the moment) the participants in the study could eat what they wanted from a breakfast bar.
The researchers learned that leptin levels went up when people got less sleep--especially if they got less sleep and then had the opportunity to eat anything they wanted, and especially in women. But the importance of these findings has more to do with long-term effects than short-term effects.
In the short term, higher leptin levels lead to eating less. Over the long term, higher leptin levels lead to eating more, because at some point, the brain simply stops responding to it. In the terminology of endocrinology, the brain becomes "resistant." If you don't get enough sleep night after night after night, your fat cells can scream "We're full" to the brain all they want, but the brain will never hear them.
What does this have to do with pancreatic cancer?
It turns out that high leptin levels aren't just associated with obesity. They are also associated, at least in animal studies, with pancreatic cancer. If you don't get enough sleep, it seems reasonable to speculate, you just might be increasing your risk of developing this most dreaded of all cancers.
Is there real-world evidence of a sleep-cancer connection? Yes. A research team at the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics of the School of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco found that sleep disturbances are a key diagnostic sign of pancreatic cancer. They are not the only warning sign of this kind of cancer, or even a particularly "good" diagnostic sign of pancreatic carcinoma.
People who get this kind of cancer are about 3 times more likely than the general public to suffer insomnia. They are up to 100 times more likely to have abdominal pain or to have pale stools, 70 times more likely to experience unusual belching, and 67 times more likely to suffer unusual bloating. If you don't sleep well, don't assume you have pancreatic cancer!
But if you know you have pancreatic cancer, take all the measures available to you to get your rest. It may be a critical part of your recovery.
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