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How Pregnancy Changes Your Brain

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Pregnancy. The miracle that marks momentous adaptations. A maternal brain materializing and new body beginning. Preparation to welcome a new life into this world. 

Between your ever evolving and expanding body, hormone roller coaster rides, morning sickness, life planning, and strange cravings, it’s no wonder you may start forgetting a thing or two. From first time new moms to seasoned birthers, most women's brains will experience some form of goof. 

Pregnancy brain, also called “mom-nesia”, are those annoying little bouts of brain fog that slow your mental roll. Those, “oh what’s the name of that” or “ah it’s on the tip of my tongue” moments may come on strong while you got a bun in the oven. 

But before thinking you'er getting early stages of mom-related cognitive decline, it’s important to define what pregnancy brain is, if it's even a real condition, how it makes most new mothers feel, and how it differs from the non-mom noggin. 

Time to discuss the contenders that complicate your consciousness and how to improve your mom-memory.  

Is "Pregnancy Brain" Real?

One thing's for sure, pregnancy may affect how mentally sharp you feel and what you spend your time thinking about -- hello baby. Some recent studies point to cognitive differences during pregnancy while others don't. 

Even though many pregnant women report memory problems, some studies have shown that "baby brain" is just a myth and that brain structure doesn't change [1]. However, another study found that gray matter volume may actually shrink in the areas of the brain associated with processing and responding to social signals. These study findings don’t necessarily mean that a woman's brain will shrink when pregnant, but rather the loss of volume in the areas may be a process of maturing and specializing -- more focus and attention given to the baby's needs [2]. 

A meta-analysis of 14 studies compared women's brains during pregnancy and postpartum period, to non-pregnant women. Researchers discovered that pregnant women experienced compromised measures of memory in some measures such as high demands on executive cognitive control. Other areas that were impacted included free recall (a type of short-term memory) and working memory [3].

What Pregnancy Brain Feels Like

Pregnancy brain feels similar to sleep deprivation. Trying to remember and tell your friend the movie you saw last week then drawing a complete blank on the name. Or going to the store to get a home essential like toilet paper, and leaving with every other item except for it. Or walking into a room and not remembering why the heck you’re there in the first place. Experiencing this kind of forgetfulness many times per day. 

It's understandable that this may set you into a panic of thinking how you’re going to be a good mom if you can’t even remember to pick up toilet paper! But don’t fret. There may be a beneficial evolutionary purpose around what makes you forget. 

What Causes Pregnancy Brain?

Pregnancy brain may actually be helpful. It can shift your focus away from the things that aren't as important, to more meaningful stuff -- like caring for your soon to be child. The human brain is programmed to make us survive and care for our offspring.  

You may find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about what life adjustments you need to make and how to best support your baby. Planning, prepping, and nesting, may result in some short-term memory obstacles. 

Hormones

Your hormone levels are fluctuating like crazy which can lead to brain fogginess and mood changes. There’s about 15 to 40 times more progesterone and estrogen in the brain during pregnancy [4]. During delivery, your oxytocin level will increase in order to make you contract and begin producing breast milk. Your brain will increase the hormones that support your baby’s wellbeing, while keeping you connected emotionally so you can bond with your baby. 

How to Help Your Memory

If you’re not feeling as sharp as normal, don't worry. Consider this to be a sign, telling you that since you’re preparing for a baby it may be time to simplify other areas of your life. Accept it as it is and take easy steps to help improve your memory. 

Relax

Take some deep breaths and try not to be hard on yourself. Stress will only make matters worse. In fact, stress can cause memory loss and forgetfulness [5,6] . 

  • Breathe - Take ten, slow, deep breaths (in your nose and out your mouth).

  • Do a body and brain scan - Focus on every part of your body, from bottom to top.

  • Music - Listen to your favorite type of relaxing music.

  • Meditation - Find a guided meditation or simply sit and bring your mind back to your body. 

  • Home spa - Take a warm bath or shower with candles.

Write it down

Whether you need to vent some worry and emotions or keep a to-do list, writing is very useful. Write down your necessary to-do list so you're set up for success. Consider crossing a few things out that don't have to get done today. Keep track of questions so you know what to ask during your next doctor’s appointment. Have a grocery list so you don’t walk into the store and leave without that toilet paper -- phone notes or text messages to yourself work perfectly.

Create a support system

You have enough to worry about. Ask friends, family, and/or your partner for an extra hand. Limit the number of things you have to do by delegating some tasks to others. When you’re have trouble remembering, enlist your partner or friend in the key search squad -- “Honey, do you know where I left the car keys?” Laugh together about the moments you draw a blank. 

Prepare 

Schedule time to do the things you need to do, while prioritizing your health. Make a dedicated day or two for shopping, highlight doctor’s appointments, and add exercise and healthy meal prep. Plan ahead by color coding your calendar. You can also add your due date! 

If you’re aiming to eat healthier, spend some time in the kitchen meal prepping. Instead of cooking one meal at a time, try to use each opportunity you cook as an time to prep for the rest of the week. Double or quadruple the recipe so you have lunch the next day or dinner for another night. 

Get better sleep 

Your body is changing, adapting, growing, and working hard to support your babe. This requires extra hours of sleep. When you first become pregnant, the hormone progesterone increases. This lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, making you feel tired. After the first trimester, your energy should increase. Then come the third trimester, you may feel tired again.  

Some pregnancy related symptoms (nausea, midnight hunger, heartburn, needing to pee, insomnia, restless leg syndrome) can make it difficult to sleep. But the more good quality sleep you get while you’re pregnant, the less baby brain fog you'll experience. Sleep also improves your and your baby's health. It can also ease the labor and delivery process. 

To get better sleep:

  • Find a consistent sleep schedule - Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

  • Stay active - Move or exercise during the day, but not right before bedtime.

  • Prioritize sleep - Turn off the TV and phone at least 30 minutes before bed. 

  • Keep naps short - Aim for less than 20 minutes to prevent a sleep cycle hangover [7].

  • Make your bedroom a sanctuary - Keep it clean and only use it for sleep (and sex).

  • Don’t eat right before bedtime - Finish eating two to three hours before bedtime.

Nutrition For Pregnancy Brain 

The nutrients and foods you eat have a direct impact on the structure of your brain and brain cells. There’s no magic pill to prevent it, but these two nutrients are particularly helpful in reducing pregnancy brain symptoms and keeping your and your baby’s brains healthy.

Eat more choline 

Choline is an essential (you must get it from food) nutrient that is found in some foods and supplements. Your body needs choline for cell membrane health -- the structure of your body. Your body requires it to make acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for your memory, mood, muscle movement, and brain and nervous system functions [8]. When you experience that “brain fog” it may be due to low levels of acetylcholine.

Side effects of not enough acetylcholine:

  • Brain fog

  • Impairments to learning

  • Memory difficulties 

  • Poor concentration 

  • Confusion

Choline also helps early brain development, meaning that you should consume choline for your baby’s health. Choline plays a role in the metabolism of folate and B12. Without enough choline, you may not have enough of the nutrients that are directly related to fetal brain development [9].

“Choline is critical during fetal development, particularly during the development of the brain, where it can influence neural tube closure and lifelong memory and learning functions.” [9].

Choline deficiency may lead to fetal neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. In spina bifida, the baby’s spinal column doesn’t close completely, typically leading to nerve damage and paralysis in the legs. In anencephaly, most of the brain and skull do not develop. These are both life threatening conditions [10].

Food sources: eggs, liver, peanuts, meat, poultry, fish, and dairy.  

Dosage: According to the U.S. Department of Health, the recommended daily intake of choline is 425-550 mg/day. Unfortunately, more than 90% of the population fails to achieve this intake [9].

Add omega 3 

Omega 3 fatty acids support healthy brain function for both you and your baby. Omega 3 helps fight inflammation, lower “bad” blood cholesterol levels while increasing “good” cholesterol, and reduce blood pressure. 

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) supports the heart, immune system, and inflammatory response. To reduce cellular inflammation, you need more EPA than DHA. But docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supports the brain, eyes, and central nervous system, which makes it particularly important for you and babe.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is typically found in plant sources. Your body can convert some ALA into EPA, then to DHA, but only in very small amounts. So getting EPA and DHA from foods and dietary supplements is the only way to increase them in your body. Most Americans get enough ALA from their diets, but only limited amounts of EPA and DHA. 

Food sources: fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines), nuts and seeds (flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts), plant oils (flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil), and fortified foods (certain eggs, yogurt, milk, soy beverages, and infant formulas). 

Dosage: Recommended amounts of EPA and DHA have not been established. The National Institute of Health recommends that during pregnancy and breastfeeding, moms should eat 8 to 12 ounces of fish or other seafood per week to improve the baby’s health [11]. Focus on fish that has higher DHA and EPA with lower amounts of mercury such as salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel and trout.

Fun fact! Nature knows -- your breast milk also provides DHA! 

Brain Foods for More Focus and Better Memory 

There’s no single food that can help improve brain health and cognitive abilities. The most important thing to do is follow a balanced diet and lifestyle. In addition to the above nutrients, these foods are superstars when it comes to a better brain.

Berries

Berries are considered to be superfoods because they contain high amounts of neuroprotective antioxidants, such as anthocyanins. Berries can also help improve blood flow and brain activation. Blueberries have the highest antioxidant activity when compared to other fruits but adding a variety of berries in your diet will give you a wide range of brain benefiting nutrients. 

Leafy Greens 

Vegetables like spinach, kale, swiss chard, and romaine lettuce are rich in inflammation fighting antioxidants. They’re also rich in B vitamins which are important for brain development. 

Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable (along with Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower). These are known for their cancer preventing properties and are plentiful in vitamin K and choline, two excellent nutrients for memory. Broccoli is also high in glucosinolates which help slow the breakdown of acetylcholine. 

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts contain monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) that help promote blood flow to the brain and body. They contain vitamin E which is helpful for neural networks and healing for the skin. Many nuts and seeds are high in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), the plant version of omega-3 fatty acids. The inflammation reducing properties of nuts and seeds can improve neuron signaling - how well your brain communicates. 

Supplements

Use caution when taking supplements. Some memory boosters such as ginkgo biloba may not be safe to take while pregnant, especially around labour and delivery time. Studies have shown that ginkgo may cause more bleeding [12]. Always consult your physician before trying any new diet or exercise program and before taking any new drug or supplement. This is especially important when you're pregnant because your baby is at risk. When looking for supplements, make sure to read the instructions carefully and search for a trusted product. 

Keep in mind  

There’s no perfect approach to living a healthy life –- you have to find what works for you and your family in order to create healthy habits that stick. Maybe that means doing one less thing per day, asking for help with a favor, or maybe it just means adding more fresh fruits, veggies, and whole foods to meal times. Maybe it simply means getting enough sleep every night to feel rested enough to take on the day.

Go easy on yourself and know that there’s nothing wrong with forgetting something insignificant every once in a while -- especially when you're pregnant. Focus on this exciting time in your life and apply credible health information as best you can. Work towards a healthy lifestyle for two (you and your baby). 

Once your little bundle of joy is born you can start focusing on good foods for baby brain development. Congratulations and happy and healthy wishes to you and your family. 

 

Sources:

  1. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13803395.2014.912614#.VSUCOfnF_HW

  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27991897

  3. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13803390701612209

  4. https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/memory_lapse_it_may_be_pregnancy_brain#2

  5. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/25/11/2977.short

  6. https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1996-05217-002

  7. https://www.sleep.org/articles/how-long-to-nap/

  8. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/

  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2518394/

  10. https://medlineplus.gov/neuraltubedefects.html

  11. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/

  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17085776

 

 

 


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