Pregnancy is a period marked by massive changes in the body, both physical and mental. From a changing body to pregnancy hormones and all the small changes in between, pregnancy is a powerful—but sometimes stressful or frustrating—time of connection to your body. One interesting side effect of pregnancy many women report is pregnancy-induced brain fog. Whether it’s forgetting appointments, misplacing items in the house, or losing track of what you were just thinking or saying, these experiences may be a result of what some researchers refer to as “pregnancy brain.”
WHAT IS PREGNANCY BRAIN?
The term “pregnancy brain” refers to memory problems, poor concentration, and absent-mindedness reported by many women during pregnancy and early motherhood. Pregnancy brain may begin as early as the first trimester of pregnancy, as this is when the body gets a major surge of hormones. This mental fog can continue long after postpartum as hormones will continue to fluctuate.
IS PREGNANCY BRAIN REAL?
Research suggests that the brain really does function differently during pregnancy. Some researchers believe that these brain changes help make expectant mothers better prepared for the rigors of caring for a newborn, such as improving her abilities to cope with stress while also making her more attuned to her infant’s needs. However, not all studies point to any major cognitive differences between pregnant and non-pregnant women. So, in short, a definitive answer remains a bit unclear.
WHAT CAUSES PREGNANCY BRAIN?
While most studies support the idea that there are at least some significant changes going on in women’s brains during pregnancy, the causes of these neurological changes are not completely clear. Here are some of the key contributors:
PHYSICAL CHANGES IN THE BRAIN
In terms of physical changes to the brain, there may be a cellular component fueling pregnancy brain. According to a 2016 study there are physiological changes that occur in the structure of all women’s brains during pregnancy. Scans showed that pregnant women will categorically experience a significant decrease in gray matter volume in areas of the brain that help with social cognition. These changes were also found to occur in parts of the brain that foster relationship building. Follow-up scans showed that these volume changes can last for two years or more.
Lifestyle factors have a significant role in pregnancy brain, and many new moms will suffer from extreme exhaustion and insomnia during the first trimester. Sleep deprivation can become more pronounced as sleep becomes increasingly uncomfortable as pregnancy progresses. Sleep deprivation often becomes more of a problem postpartum as well, as many new mothers find themselves losing out on significant amounts of sleep as they care for their newborns and adjust to the new demands of motherhood—all of which may affect a mom’s mood and memory.
It should come as no surprise that hormones play a significant role in pregnancy-related afflictions. As with many other symptoms associated with pregnancy, hormones can often be blamed for memory problems. The body experiences a major surge of various hormones, such as progesterone and estrogen, during pregnancy—and some doctors and scientists believe that this dramatic spike could affect your ability to think clearly, recall easily, and focus mindfully.
STRESS AND ANXIETY
Increased stress levels and anxiety associated with becoming a parent might also play a role in contributing to pregnancy brain. Studies have found that anxiety levels tend to increase as pregnancy progresses, and stress levels may rise further post-birth. The first few months of caring for a newborn can be particularly demanding which can lead to elevated stress levels and cause difficulty focusing.
TIPS ON COMBATING PREGNANCY BRAIN
While these changes may sound stressful and life-disrupting, remember that forgetfulness during pregnancy is normal and very common, and should not be a cause for alarm. The symptoms associated with pregnancy brain should be temporary but in the meantime there are some lifestyle suggestions that could be helpful for dealing with brain fog during pregnancy.
- Write things down to help you remember. Take this opportunity to get that adorable planner you’ve been eyeing and jot down your to-do list items as soon as they come to you.
- Rely on calendar reminders on your phone. Even if an event or task seems silly to set a reminder for, now is the time to get organized in your Google cal. Set reminders, especially for important things like doctor’s appointments.
- Enlist the aid of those around you to serve as your support and backup system. It’s likely your family and close friends want to be as helpful and supportive as possible during your pregnancy, but many may not want to intrude or insert themselves where they may not be wanted or needed. Take that uncertainty away from them being honest about what you need—they’ll likely be relieved you’ve taken the guesswork out of it for them!
- Have a sense of humor and don’t be too hard on yourself.
- Eat plenty of choline-rich foods during pregnancy (researchers believe this may help boost the function of your brain and your baby’s.)
- Load up on omega-3s and nutrient rich foods that help support healthy brain function and development.
- Practice mindfulness and sleep meditations to help with better quality sleep.