What Is Pregnancy Brain?
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Have you ever looked for your cellphone while talking on the phone? Or maybe you call your kids by the family dog's name more often than you'd like to admit. Ask any busy mama, and she'll regrettably tell you; momnesia is real. Between the sleep deprivation, carpools and cold coffee that you habitually make every morning, but never actually get to drink warm; it's no surprise that moms sometimes feel like they're running on E. But what if I told you that this forgetful phenomenon began long before you and your baby both left the hospital in diapers? That's right people; momnesia actually originates during pregnancy.
Pregnancy brain is a term that has been facetiously coined to refer to that woozy, forgetful feeling that between 50 to 80 percent of expecting mothers report experiencing during pregnancy. But is there any real science to support this word stumbling, car-key losing, "wait, why did I just walk to the kitchen again?" phenomenon? Or is pregnancy brain simply a gestational rite of passage to justify all the absurd blunders that one would likely still likely make day to day.
In this article:
- What causes pregnancy brain?
- When does pregnancy brain start?
- Is pregnancy brain real?
- Combating pregnancy brain.
What Causes Pregnancy Brain?
Just like your intense midnight cravings for bagels, pregnancy brain can be partially blamed on hormones. In fact, progesterone and estrogen production skyrockets to 15 to 40 times its normal levels during pregnancy, which affects the neurons in the brain. These heightened hormones are known to affect spatial memory, which explains why pregnant women sometimes struggle to remember things that used to be second nature. While forgetting your phone number might not seem like an evolutionary advantage, this lapse in spatial memory exists to ensure that women focus on tending to their incoming infant; and forget about all the other stuff that biology has deemed unimportant.
But it doesn't stop at just hormones. A small but groundbreaking study in 2016 revealed that pregnancy spurs measurable modifications within the brain that can last up to two years after giving birth. These changes manifest as a decrease in gray matter, which is the region of the brain that is responsible for social reasoning. Similar to the surge of hormones, this too is devised by nature to help fine-tune your attention to the needs of your baby; because apparently, now isn't the time to be preoccupied with why your cousin Crystal didn't like your latest post on Facebook. Good call, evolution.
Another contributory element to the maternity mental-fog is wavering emotions. Pregnant women often find themselves feeling preoccupied with overwhelming sensations such as excitement, anxiety, and irrational road rage. These fluctuating emotions are entirely understandable, considering the immense responsibility that impending parenthood brings. If you find yourself to be more forgetful amidst all the emotional highs and lows, it's not all in your head. Anytime your brain is busy feeling all the feels; your cognitive function takes a temporary hit.
When Does Pregnancy Brain Start?
Although your baby might still be minuscule during the first trimester, the rapid and significant hormonal changes your body endures during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are enough to trigger a massive spell of momnesia. Aside from puberty, there is no other time in a woman's life in which hormonal changes are as profound and impactful as during pregnancy. Soon after conception, progesterone and estrogen quickly begin to rise; along with the pregnancy-specific hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG).
This rapid hormonal shift, primarily the increase in progesterone, is thought to be what initially triggers the phenomenon of pregnancy brain.
Progesterone is the hormone that is most commonly associated with premenstrual syndrome and is known to bring about sensations of absent-mindedness and irritability. Because progesterone levels begin to rise during the first few weeks after conception and remain elevated for the span of the pregnancy; the forgetfulness associated with it also comes along for the ride.
Is Pregnancy Brain Real?
The validity of pregnancy brain is a topic that has been long debated by the scientific community. Until recently, no research supported the theory that pregnancy physically changed the structure of the expecting mother's brain. Instead, hormonal shifts, stress, insomnia, and other lifestyle factors were hypothesized to be solely responsible for the forgetfulness that women often report encountering during pregnancy. However, thanks to new and ongoing research, science is starting to catch up with what women have always intuitively known to be true; pregnancy brain is a real and measurable occurrence.
In 2018, researchers at Deakin University analyzed the cognitive function of 709 pregnant women and 521 non-pregnant women to determine if the phenomenon of pregnancy brain is an evident experience. This remarkable study concluded that there is, in fact, a decline in general cognitive function and memory during the first and second trimester; as well as a significant decrease in cognitive function, memory, and executive function during the third trimester. These findings are consistent with the 2016 University of Barcelona study that revealed that there is a substantial reduction in grey matter within the brain during pregnancy, which lasts up to two years after giving birth.
Although these findings might sound alarming, researchers insist that these declines in cognitive function and memory are carefully curated by nature to prepare women's minds for impending motherhood. Although pregnant women may experience minor lapses in memory, these cognitive changes are not drastic enough to affect women's capability to perform at work or navigate complex tasks.
Combating Pregnancy Brain.
Although pregnancy brain is natural, normal, and presumably advantageous during gestation, so are hemorrhoids; but that doesn't stop us from busting out the Preparation H as needed. Although there is no assured antidote for momnesia, there are things you can do to help you stay on track. Try making to-do lists, utilize a daily planner, set reminders on your phone, get plenty of sleep, and take a high-quality omega-3 supplement to help support you and your baby's rapidly evolving brains. But if all else fails, it's also okay to just laugh it off. After all, science also suggests that babies inherit their sense of humor from their mothers.
National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Cognitive impairment during pregnancy: a meta-analysis January 2018.
- Sera Ansardi