March 2, 2016

Christian LisaCOLUMBUS, Ohio – Newly published research shows that poor sleep, inflammation and nutrition work in combination to play a role in preterm birth.

Poor sleep promotes inflammation, and inflammation can impact the length of a pregnancy and affect preterm birth. In the U.S., African Americans exhibit a 1.5 times greater risk for preterm birth.

Previous research conducted at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center showed that poor sleep quality, measured by self-report during the second trimester, was predictive of shorter gestation (or pregnancy) and preterm birth. Researchers found that the link between poor sleep and shorter gestation was partially accounted for by higher levels of proinflammatory cytokines – substances secreted by immune system cells that affect other cells – in women with poor sleep.

In addition, African American women were more vulnerable to preterm birth than white women when they experienced poor sleep. These findings were published in 2015 the journal Sleep.

Now, research recently published in the journal PLoS One, examined the role of nutrition in association with sleep quality, inflammation and length of gestation in the same 135 pregnant women. Specifically, investigators were interested in the role of a certain polyunsaturated fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is important for fetal brain development, and maternal levels decrease throughout gestation as the fetus utilizes DHA. Researchers measured levels of DHA in red blood cells. 

“Poor DHA status has been linked with preterm birth risk in prior studies. In our analyses, we found that poor DHA status was linked to shorter gestation via effects on both sleep quality and inflammation,” said Lisa M. Christian, an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

“As we saw with the effects of poor sleep, in the context of poor DHA status, African American women experienced greater risk for preterm birth than did white women,” said Christian, also principal investigator of the study.

These data bring together prior studies which show that each of these factors – poor DHA status, poor sleep and inflammation – contribute to preterm birth risk. This study shows how these factors interact and influence each other. 

“Importantly, both nutrition and sleep are highly amenable to change. These findings provide a foundation for future intervention studies – which are being planned – aimed to improve DHA consumption, as well as sleep,” Christian said. 

Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines), fish oil or algae-derived supplements are nutritional sources of DHA.

Other researchers involved in the study were Lisa Blair, Kyle Porter, Mary Lower, Rachel Cole and Martha Belury, also of Ohio State.


Contact: Sherri Kirk, Wexner Medical Center Public Affairs and Media Relations, 614-293-3737 or