Sleep as medicine

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

by Janet Murton

You’ve heard of Food as Medicine, but what about Sleep as Medicine?

If you suffer from a chronic illness, including cancer, then ensure you get as much deep, relaxing sleep as possible - this is when most healing occurs. For this your body needs optimal levels of melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep.

With regard to cancer, melatonin helps to down-regulate oestrogen-responsive genes (Kaczor, 2010), boosts immunity (Vinther etal, 2015) and may induce cancer cell death (Sanchez-Hidalgo etal 2012) .

Melatonin is often prescribed to alleviate jet lag – acute sleep disorder. However long-term supplementation for insomnia and other sleep disorders does not seem to be of benefit (Russcher etal, 2013).

For chronic disorders, it is best to boost your own levels of melatonin naturally. Here are some tips:

1. Melatonin is mainly produced in the evening as darkness falls and while we are asleep. Therefore, sleep in darkness as any form of light inhibits production.

2. Melatonin and cortisol are inversely related i.e. melatonin is low when cortisol is high. Therefore, you want to reduce stress (that stimulates cortisol production) in the evenings before sleep. Hence make it a habit to relax and be calm before bedtime. Use morning times to handle stressful situations.

3. Eat more foods that are associated with supporting melatonin levels. These foods either contain melatonin or tryptophan which is a precursor to melatonin:

  • Fresh pineapples, bananas and oranges (Sae-Teaw etal, 2013)

  • Tart red cherries or tart cherry juice (Howarson etal, 2012)

  • To a lesser extent oats, sweet corn, rice, ginger, tomatoes and barley (Xiao etal, 2017)

Unfortunately, as we age our ability to produce melatonin wanes due to the natural degeneration of the pineal gland which is the main producer of melatonin (Xiao etal, 2017). So, follow the above tips to increase melatonin levels from foods and avoid situations that decrease levels.

Sleep well!


1. Howatson G, et al, 2012, Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality, European Journal of Nutrition,

2. Kaczor T, 2010, An Overview of Melatonin and Breast Cancer, Natural Medicine Journal,

3. Russcher M, et al, 2013, Long-term effects of melatonin on quality of life and sleep in haemodialysis patients, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology,

4. Sae-Teaw M, et al, 2013, Serum melatonin levels and antioxidant capacities after consumption of pineapple, orange, or banana by healthy male volunteers,

5. Sanchez-Hidalgo M, et al, 2012, Melatonin, a natural programmed cell death inducer in cancer,

6. Vinther AG, et al, 2015, The influence of melatonin on the immune system and cancer,

7. Xiao M, Ya L … & Hua-Bim L, 2017. Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin, Nutrients Journal,