insomnia during pregnancyResearchers from the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine report a possible link between disrupted sleep during pregnancy and birth defect risk. According to the study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, depression during pregnancy affects sleep patterns and the affected sleep patterns may result in altered immune system function and increased risk of birth defects.

Restful, uninterrupted sleep is important during pregnancy. Immune system health has been directly linked to sleep patterns in pregnant women, non-pregnant women and men. Pregnant women commonly suffer from insomnia at some point during pregnancy, but just because insomnia is common does not mean it comes without risk.

When sleep patterns are interrupted the inflammatory response is often affected causing the body to produce too many cytokines. Cytokines are part of the healthy body response to pregnancy, but if levels are elevated, cytokines can start to attack healthy cells – destructing healthy tissue along the way. In addition to reducing immune response and ability to fight off illness, elevated cytokines can also cause damage to arteries that lead to the placenta, increase the risk of vascular disease, spark depression and increase the risk of premature delivery.

In previous studies, researchers found elevated cytokine levels in women who suffered preeclampsia and premature delivery. About 50% of the increased cytokine levels can be associated with immune response to infection, but disrupted sleep is thought to play a role in some cases.

In total, 170 women were evaluated at 20 weeks gestation. The study group was comprised of women who suffered from depression and women who did not suffer from depression. Researchers followed women for 10 weeks – measuring sleep patterns and cytokine levels. At the start of the study, women who suffered from depression were more likely to have elevated cytokine levels. By the end of the study at 30 weeks, cytokine levels were similar between the two groups as cytokine levels increase during pregnancy. Women with depression and disrupted sleep problems, including insomnia, are in the highest risk category for birth defects.

Source: Michele L. Okun PhD, James F. Luther MA, Stephen R. Wisniewski Phd, Katherine L. Wisner MD, MS. Disturbed Sleep and Inflammatory Cytokines in Depressed and Nondepressed Pregnant Women: An Exploratory Analysis of Pregnancy Outcomes. Psychosomatic Medicine July 17, 2013 doi: PSY.0b013e31829cc3e7.