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Lack of Sleep in Pregnancy Could Lead to Childbirth Complications

by Katlyn Joy | August 20, 2013 12:00 AM

According to Science Daily, a study out of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine links poor quality sleep in expectant mothers with disrupted immune system processes and birth complications. The study was published in the July 17, 2013 journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

The lead author of the study, Michele Okun, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Pitt's School of Medicine stated, "Our results highlight the importance of identifying sleep problems in early pregnancy, especially in women experiencing depression, since sleep is a modifiable behavior."

Getting both enough hours of sleep and high enough quality of sleep is an important criteria for good health, as sleep impacts the immune system of both men and women. However, pregnancy is known to interfere with sleep in terms of sleep quality and sleep length, and many expectant mothers suffer from insomnia during pregnancy.

Poor sleep affects the immune system because when a woman doesn't get adequate sleep or has poor sleep patterns in pregnancy the body's inflammatory responses are set off. This in turns causes an overproduction of cytokines. Cytokines are molecules that are a sort of alarm messenger in the body to the immune system.

While cytokines are generally a positive element in a pregnant woman's body, too many of them will end up attacking and even destroying healthy cells. This in turn leads to the destruction of healthy tissue in the pregnant woman resulting in a hampered ability to fight off disease and illness in the mother.

Excess cytokines are also related to depression, vascular disease, and problems with the spinal arteries leading to the placenta in pregnant women.

Previous studies have found higher concentrations of cytokines in women who had experienced pregnancy and birth difficulties such as preeclampsia and premature labor and birth.

"There is a dynamic relationship between sleep and immunity, and this study is the first to examine this relationship during pregnancy as opposed to postpartum," said Dr. Okun.

With adverse outcomes such as preterm labor or preeclampsia, infection is the culprit in about half of the cases. However, researchers now believe that behavioral processes such as sleep have a role to play in these types of cases as well, since sleep disturbance affects immune function.

Higher cytokine concentrations were also found in depressed people.

This study is unique in that it was the first to study depression, insomnia and inflammatory cytokines particularly in combination and their subsequent affect on pregnancy.

Researcher examined over 170 pregnant women at 20 weeks in the pregnancy, including both depressed and non-depressed expectant mothers. For the study, the women's sleep patterns and cytokine production levels were examined for 10 straight weeks.

The researchers looked specifically at the 20 week mark because prior to this the cytokine levels are too inconsistent to study. After 30 weeks the differences in cytokine levels were negligible between depressed and non-depressed women, likely since the levels increase normally as pregnancy progresses.

Researchers found women with both poor sleep functioning and depression were at greatest risk for negative or adverse birth outcomes. It appears that cytokine levels are an important issue in this regard, especially in cases of preterm birth.

Researchers also discovered that any disruption in immunity sets up a pregnant mother for adverse birth outcomes. These disrupters would include poor sleep and depression.

The importance of the study is summed up by lead researcher, Dr. Okun, "The earlier that sleep problems are identified, the sooner physicians can work with pregnant women to implement solutions."

Women who have trouble with sleeping while pregnant should do what they can to improve sleep quality and quantity.

13 Tips to Help You Sleep Better


ScienceDaily, UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Katlyn Joy is a mother to 7 children, and a freelance writer. She earned her Master of Arts in Creative Writing and Poetry, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and was previously an adviser to new mothers on breastfeeding through a maternity home program. She currently resides in Colorado with her family.

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