Can T'ai Chi Chih Improve Sleep in Breast Cancer Survivors?

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Sleep disorders such as insomnia may increase cancer risk — and for cancer patients with insomnia the most recommended treatment is often cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Unfortunately, CBT can be expensive, hard to find, and the treatment requires a great deal of commitment and dedication.

An alternative insomnia treatment for breast cancer survivors?

A 2017 study published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology found that mind-body interventions such as T'ai Chi Chih (TCC) may be just as effective as CBT when it comes to improving insomnia symptoms.

What is TCC?

TCC is a meditative form of movement that involves 19 movements and one pose. As pointed out by the study’s authors, TCC emphasizes control over physical function and arousal-related responses, both of which can contribute to insomnia. The movements are repetitive, slow-paced, and nonstrenuous, which makes the treatment highly accessible.

The researchers of this study also identified previous studies that found TCC can:

  • Improve sleep quality

  • Reduce fatigue

  • Reduce depression

Although TCC does not address the thoughts and behaviors that are the cause of many cases of insomnia, its emphasis on controlling stress-related responses through repetitive, slow movements can promote relaxation and reduce the impact of insomnia.

The effectiveness of TCC for treating insomnia

In the study, 45 individuals participated in weekly TCC sessions for 12 weeks and 45 individuals participated in weekly CBT sessions for 12 weeks. All participants were between 42 and 83 years of age and all had completed breast cancer treatment at least six months prior to the study.

In order to determine the long-term effect of each treatment on insomnia, participants were assessed one year after finishing their allocated treatment.

Researchers found that 44 percent of individuals in the CBT group experienced improved sleep, and 47 percent of individuals in the TCC group experienced improved sleep, as measured by the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index.

Although insomnia remission (as assessed by a clinician) was 46 percent among those in the CBT group -- compared to just 28 percent in the TCC group -- researchers pointed out that both groups saw similar improvements in overall sleep quality. This led them to conclude that TCC offered benefits that were as robust as those associated with CBT.

How to experience the benefits of TCC

TCC is typically less expensive than CBT and it can be practiced at home with the help of YouTube videos and even smartphone apps. With that being said, it’s worth mentioning that participants in the 2017 study enjoyed weekly group sessions that were administered by a master’s level TCC instructor and co-therapist certified by the T'ai Chi Chih Association. You can find accredited TCC teachers on their website.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.