Shift Work May Hamper Conception

Harvard study suggests that women who work late shifts may have problems conceiving a baby

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Tara L. Gellasch, an OB-GYN, practices at Rochester Regional Health.
Tara L. Gellasch, an OB-GYN, practices at Rochester Regional Health.

A study recently released by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston states that women who work second or third shift may experience a reduced ability to conceive.

The disrupted sleep schedule — resting while others are awake and working when most are asleep — may be partly to blame.

“Anything that disrupts the circadian rhythm throws off our hormonal and endocrine and even our immune system,” said Rob Kiltz, founder and director of CNY Fertility in Rochester. “The stress factors that go along with that and the fact that we may not be in synch with the partner, that probably doesn’t help.”

Kiltz is a diplomate of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and board-certified in reproductive endocrinology and infertility.

He said that circadian rhythm disruption affects ovulation dysfunction, “likely affecting the hormonal environment that supports the early embryonic environment. It could throw off the hormones that support early pregnancy.”

Other work factors can reduce the woman’s ability to conceive, such as performing heavy physical labor. The study indicated that women working physically intense jobs had fewer eggs than women working sedentary jobs.

Kiltz said that these somewhat androgenic activities release cortisol, the stress hormone. That promotes inflammatory conditions that can negatively affect how egg and sperm interact, ovulation and implantation of a fertilized egg.

While exercise is healthful, strenuous, heavy activity may make having a baby tougher. In addition to physical stress, emotional stress can also inhibit conception.

“This is why we recommend yoga, exercise, acupuncture, going for a walk, listening to nature and soothing music and reading a good book,” Kiltz said. “Turn off the TV news. If you do have shift work, imagine you’re able to come home, reduce the light, and change that circadian rhythm a bit to get a quiet time of rest and relaxation.”

He also recommends limiting carbohydrates in the diet.

Tara L. Gellasch, an OB-GYN board-certified by the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology with Rochester Regional Health, recommends women who want to conceive to take pre-natal vitamins, since their 400 micrograms of folic acid have been shown to reduce the risk of certain birth defects.

She also recommends women considering pregnancy to get any health conditions under control and ask their doctors about the safety of any medication they take.

“Additionally, overweight and obese women should consider weight loss prior to pregnancy,” Gellasch said.
Obesity increases the risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and preterm birth. Overweight women also experience higher rates of cesarean sections.

Tobacco cessation can also help increase fertility and decrease the risk of miscarriage and birth complications.

“Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your health and the health of your family,” Gellasch said. “Your medical provider can discuss with you some of the options available to help you quit while you are trying to conceive.”

Working with an OB-GYN and fertility expert can help women struggling to conceive to eliminate factors that decrease their likelihood of pregnancy.

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