Light-at-night, circadian disruption and breast cancer: assessment of existing evidence

Int J Epidemiol. 2009 Aug;38(4):963-70. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyp178. Epub 2009 Apr 20.


Background: Breast cancer incidence is increasing globally for largely unknown reasons. The possibility that a portion of the breast cancer burden might be explained by the introduction and increasing use of electricity to light the night was suggested >20 years ago.

Methods: The theory is based on nocturnal light-induced disruption of circadian rhythms, notably reduction of melatonin synthesis. It has formed the basis for a series of predictions including that non-day shift work would increase risk, blind women would be at lower risk, long sleep duration would lower risk and community nighttime light level would co-distribute with breast cancer incidence on the population level.

Results: Accumulation of epidemiological evidence has accelerated in recent years, reflected in an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classification of shift work as a probable human carcinogen (2A). There is also a strong rodent model in support of the light-at-night (LAN) idea.

Conclusion: If a consensus eventually emerges that LAN does increase risk, then the mechanisms for the effect are important to elucidate for intervention and mitigation. The basic understanding of phototransduction for the circadian system, and of the molecular genetics of circadian rhythm generation are both advancing rapidly, and will provide for the development of lighting technologies at home and at work that minimize circadian disruption, while maintaining visual efficiency and aesthetics. In the interim, there are strategies now available to reduce the potential for circadian disruption, which include extending the daily dark period, appreciate nocturnal awakening in the dark, using dim red light for nighttime necessities, and unless recommended by a physician, not taking melatonin tablets.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blindness / complications
  • Blindness / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Chronobiology Disorders / complications*
  • Chronobiology Disorders / epidemiology
  • Chronobiology Disorders / metabolism
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Light Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Lighting / adverse effects
  • Melatonin / biosynthesis
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Time Factors
  • Work Schedule Tolerance*


  • Melatonin