Tai Chi appears to improve sleep, and as a result reduces inflammation and boosts the immune systems of breast cancer survivors, a new study says.

The ancient Chinese martial arts practice relies on slow, precise movements performed as the person breathes deeply and focuses attention on the body.

This mind-body practice appears as good as or better than cognitive behavioral therapy in helping breast cancer survivors deal with the aftermath of their disease, researchers reported recently in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

About 30% of breast cancer survivors suffer from insomnia, twice the rate of the general population, researchers said in background notes.

For this study, researchers analyzed blood samples from 90 Los Angeles breast cancer survivors who underwent weekly Tai Chi or cognitive behavioral therapy sessions lasting two hours for a three-month period.

Both Tai Chi and cognitive behavioral therapy produced similar decreases in insomnia among the participants. 

But the blood samples, taken over 15 months, revealed that Tai Chi led to significant and sustained reductions in inflammation, compared with cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Tai Chi participants also experienced increases in antiviral activity within the immune system, although cognitive behavioral therapy produced even better improvements.

These could help reduce the risk of breast cancer recurring in survivors, researchers said.

“Effective treatment of insomnia has potent impacts on the immune system,” said lead researcher Dr. Michael Irwin, director of UCLA Health’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

The results show that Tai Chi can effectively help breast cancer survivors remain healthy, without much cost to the health care system, researchers argue.

“Tai Chi can be readily provided in community settings, with minimal cost, and can treat insomnia in adults, older adults and cancer survivors,” Irwin said in a UCLA news release.

However, more research is needed to see if combining the two therapies could provide even greater insomnia relief, Irwin added.

“Tai Chi preferentially reduces inflammation as compared to cognitive behavioral therapy, whereas cognitive behavioral therapy preferentially improves… resistance to infectious disease,” Irwin said. “Further research that examines the combined benefit of Tai Chi and cognitive behavioral therapy is needed, especially in cancer survivors who are at risk for inflammatory disorder as well as infectious disease.”

More information

Harvard Health has more about Tai Chi.

SOURCE: UCLA, news release, June 26, 2024