If there is one thing most people associate with parenthood, it is lost sleep. Although getting enough sleep is extremely important during pregnancy and the early days of parenthood, it is often hard to come by during these periods of life. However, this situation may not be optimal for the development of our next generation. According to several studies on melatonin and pregnancy, this sleep hormone plays an important role in the health of both pregnant mothers and their fetuses.
Melatonin and Pregnancy
The circadian rhythm is more important during pregnancy and parenthood that we could ever have imagined. Studies have shown that poor maternal circadian rhythms lead to poor fetal circadian rhythms and thus to poor development. Melatonin, a key hormone involved in initiating and sustaining sleep and maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm, has also been proven in numerous studies to play a crucial role in pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Part of melatonin’s importance is due to its role as an antioxidant. During pregnancy, the placenta appears to be particularly at risk from free radical damage, which can lead to poor function and thus poor nourishment of the growing fetus. Melatonin has been shown to protect the placenta against free radical damage, encouraging a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.
In addition to its role as an antioxidant, melatonin also appears to play an important part in fetal development. One study found that taking a melatonin supplement can reduce the chances of birth defects even when no other risk factors are present.
As important as melatonin is to normal development, it appears to play an even more important role in protecting against some of the most common and most-feared diseases of pregnancy and childbirth.
Melatonin’s Role in Pre-Eclampsia
Pre-eclampsia is one of the most dangerous conditions related to pregnancy. Women who develop this disease have an immune response to the fetus, which can lead to dangerously high blood pressure, liver failure and a host of unpleasant effects. The only cure for this disease is delivery, even when the pregnancy is too premature to be safely delivered. Mothers and babies still die regularly from this disease. According to new research, melatonin may play an important role in preventing pre-eclampsia and associated complications.
Women who have higher levels of melatonin appear to have fewer effects from pre-eclampsia, which means less danger to both mother and baby. In addition, women with pre-eclampsia who have higher levels of melatonin tend to need less medication and to deliver measurably later than women who have lower levels of this hormone. The result can make a huge difference in whether the fetus and the mother survive this terrifying and potentially deadly condition.
Sleep and Gestational Diabetes
A dysregulated circadian rhythm has been found in multiple studies to contribute to metabolic syndrome and to diabetes in shift workers. According to several new studies, gestational diabetes may similarly be linked to a lack of sleep.
Melatonin levels have long been linked to a healthy metabolism. Pregnant women and their babies appear to also experience this effect. Women with higher levels of melatonin are less likely to develop gestational diabetes, one of the most common chronic illnesses seen in pregnant women.
Although gestational diabetes can often be managed effectively with diet and exercise, it also can lead to serious complications. Infants born to mothers with gestational diabetes tend to have poorer health outcomes due to changes in their metabolism. In addition, the mothers are more likely to experience complications in labor and delivery that can compromise the health of everyone involved.
Keeping a healthy circadian rhythm, which means maintaining healthy levels of melatonin, appears to protect infants and their mothers from developing serious metabolic illnesses. Although expecting mothers may struggle to get the sleep they need, their health may depend on it.
Birth, Breastfeeding, and Beyond
Although it can be difficult to get enough sleep while pregnant, the challenge only grows after an infant is born. Newborns need 24/7 care, which can interfere with the circadian rhythm of their dedicated parents.
Melatonin and other hormones associated with a healthy circadian rhythm appear to be important in the early development of newborns and infants. Breast milk released at certain times of day contains melatonin, which means that the developing infant gets an extra dose of this sleep hormone.
Although it is easy to see how melatonin in breast milk could affect an infant’s sleep, it is more surprising to find out that it may also affect the developing GI tract. According to recent studies, melatonin may actually affect the gut-brain axis, helping breastfed infants to have healthier gastrointestinal tracts and even healthier brains. Although the research is still new, the results are promising.
No expert worth their salt would contest that it is difficult to get enough sleep and maintain a balanced circadian rhythm while pregnant or parenting. However, keeping your internal clocks on track is even more important during this time. Your health and that of your growing child depend on keeping the right balance of melatonin and getting the rest that you need.