Are Your Work Hours Diminishing Your Fertility?

Are Your Work Hours Diminishing Your Fertility?

If you’re working hours outside the typical 9-to-5 routine, you might be losing out on more than just your sleep. That irregular schedule could also be taking a serious toll on women’s reproductive health, according to a new study released this week.

Lower fertility levels, disrupted menstrual cycles and even miscarriage were all found to be more likely for these so-called “shift workers”: employees in fields like medicine, nursing, finance and technology with alternating or night hours. And the results from the study weren’t insignificant: rates of lowered fertility jumped an astounding 80% for these types of workers, compared with women who work normal business hours.

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The findings, presented at the annual meeting of the Human Reproduction and Embryology in London, analyzed data on 119,345 women, and conducted a meta-analysis of studies from 1969 all the way up to this year.

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How Inconsistent Sleep Affects Your Health

Not surprisingly, messing with the body’s natural circadian rhythm can result in major consequences to your health. Employees with a disrupted sleep schedule have been associated with health issues like lower rates of exercise, bad diet habits, and of course, poor sleep—as well as an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and gastrointestinal diseases.

But an association with infertility is relatively novel.

In this particular study, the researchers hypothesized that the disruption of a schedule affects the function of “clock genes,” which can influence the biological process.

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A study released last year similarly found that mice that were frequently subjected to disordered cycles of light and darkness had a 22% to 50% rate of successful pregnancies, while those under the usual night and day patterns had a 90% rate.

And consistent shut-eye is not just important to women when it comes to fertility. A previous study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology early this year, also drew an association between sleep disturbances and reduced semen quality in men.

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What You Can Do to Protect Your Health

With an increasingly globalized economy, working around the clock is common, and the percentage of shift workers that are women, and college grads, is also increasing. But if you’re one of the 15 million Americans on this type of schedule, and you are struggling with fertility, there’s no reason to hand in your resignation letter just yet.

Researchers noted that this is an association—not causation—and Dr. Linden Stocker, who presented the study at the conference, emphasized in a statement that the long-term effects of disrupted circadian rhythms “are inherently difficult to study.”

Dr. Norbert Gleicher, the medical director and chief scientist at the Center for Human Reproduction New York, also notes that the results are not absolute. While an association with an irregular menstrual cycle is expected—other irregularities, like travel, can have a similar effect—an increased risk of miscarriage is more of a surprise.

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Further research is certainly needed, but even so, lifestyle changes—and better sleep patterns—still might want to be considered.

Dr. Elizabeth Barbieri, a board-certified specialist in infertility at Oregon Reproductive Medicine, recommends that women experiencing fertility issues “keep their sleep schedule as consistent as possible on weekends or days off from work.”

And in general, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and of course, getting a good night’s sleep—are all ways to support the body when trying to conceive.

RELATED: Sleep Tight: Three Ways to Get Better Sleep Now

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