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Every now and then there’s an article on the effect of pregnancy and motherhood on the brain. The latest in the bunch tells us that mom’s brain shrink! How awful and how completely unsurprising since you’ve probably got some firsthand experience at what mommy brain fog feels like.
I remember during my first few months as a new mom being unable to remember everyday words. Losing my train of thought mid sentence. Forgetting where I was heading in such a hurry and just standing still in the middle of the living room…knowing there was a pressing matter, but without a clue what needed to be done. I also have the luck to be with a man who loves to do math out loud. I’ve always been pretty decent at keeping up, now I just tune out as there’s no way for me to follow his calculations without physical strain 🙂
Mommy Brain Fog
During pregnancy it’s a known fact that you become more forgetful and a bit of an airhead, it’s also called pregnancy dementia, porridge brain or placenta brain. Issues with a post pregnancy brain or mommy brain fog appear to be a problem as well. You tend to feel less capable, a little ditsy, frazzled and like your emotions are having their way with you.
The study that triggered me to write this post compared the brain size and structure of first time moms to that of fertile women without children and first time dads. Dad’s brains don’t shrink, lucky dudes! The results were actually so consistent that they were able to predict which shrunken brain scan belonged to a first time mom 84% of the time.
Blame Your Hormones
The changes your brain go through during pregnancy are as revolutionary as puberty and menopause. During these stages your brain is flooded by hormones in a manner comparable to pregnancy. Which hormones are responsible for your mommy brain fog’s something scientists don’t agree on yet. But it’s clear that the changes are driven by your hormones.
Just Like Einstein
Our shrunken mommy brain actually reflects a specialization that occurs. There’s a rewiring that’s taking place, which strengthens the areas that react to your newborn. In addition, these changes also predict the intensity of maternal attachment. The comparison with Einstein is often made. He would be so preoccupied with more pressing matters that he’d forget where he left large sums of money.
I’m you’re so consumed by matters that concern my your little one that math seems like a frivolous luxury. It makes me wonder as well if shrinkage is the best term to use for our rewired brains.
Sleep, Of Course
In addition, to the structural and size changes that are causing your mommy brain fog. It’s also an issue of horrific sleep deprivation. It’s estimated that when you become a mom you’ll accumulate a sleep debt of approximately 700 hours in your baby’s first year (!) When you don’t sleep the first brain function that’s affected is the part responsible for your alertness, creativity and planning capabilities.
Clean My Brain
During sleep the area between your brain cells becomes larger. A type of cleaning fluid’s then released, which removes toxins that have built up during the day. If you’ve ever gotten some proper rest before an important exam, job interview or presentation, you’ve experienced this clarity that comes with brain waste removal. Everything makes more sense, you can now solve problems that stumped you. And on sleep deprivation you’ve probably experienced the complete opposite.
Sleep Like A Baby
Apply this notion to your little one including the benefits of a well functioning brain like improved emotional wellbeing, stress resiliency, immune system improvement and decreased anxiety levels. A baby that gets enough sleep can grow, learn and develop in a healthy manner. Otherwise they’re just as grumpy as you and I.
Suffering Through Sleep
The sleep deprivation parents face is even more detrimental because it’s unpredictable. When you’re constantly aware of the possibility of waking up at any moment, your stress levels remain high throughout the night causing you to not only get little sleep, but really lousy sleep.
Read more about improving your sleep quality here.
In your day-to-day functioning whether you’re a stay at home mom, a work at home mom or a working outside the home mom, having your brain working at optimum capacity is essential. It’s not just about cognitive function improving when you take better care of your brain. You also improve your emotional wellbeing, your stress resiliency, your immune system and your anxiety levels decrease.
Smarter As Mom
It’s been concluded in studies that this rewiring of the mommy brain that initially comes with a lot of confusion will eventually settle into a better brain later on! A brain better equipped to deal with more demands focused upon nurturing, protecting and attachment. This is hopefully sounding more inviting. It’s actually argued that motherhood makes us smarter.
Grow Your Brain
The brain’s such a complex and fascinating organ. When you start learning more about how it works, you’ll just want to know even more. This complexity is reflected in how we create an environment in which our brains can thrive. In the last few decades scientists have discovered that we aren’t condemned to a fixed set of brain cells. Our intelligence and learning capacity is fluid. Even as we age we’ve got the capacity keep our brain agile and growing. It’s all about creating an environment where this is possible.
If you think about your happiest moments then they’ll probably come close to the environment I’ll describe that needs to be in sync in order for your brain to thrive. You don’t want to just stimulate new brain cell production, but you also want to keep them. So it’s not enough to just focus on one are and call it a day. You want to do little things in every area to get maximum benefit. Luckily, some of these areas will bring you so many other benefits that you won’t even want to go back.
Maybe you’ve heard about the stereotype threat, a term coined by a Stanford psychologist. This occurs when a member of a certain group needs to perform an action, which is thought to be an action this group can’t do well and the member in question perform worse because of this expectation. Think of girls and math for instance. Girls don’t perform as well as they could because they aren’t expected to get it.
As moms we use our pregnancy brain as an excuse and keep the stereotype alive. Research has found that in order to benefit from the smart effect motherhood can have attitude plays an important role as well as how you deal with stress. Pregnant and postpartum women who’ve been surveyed actually belief that they’re less capable.
In her book the Mommy Brain Katherine Ellison gives an advice I really love. She tells mom to start viewing their mommy brain fog as an advantage and less of a handicap. You might be ready to stop reading now since your experience of a mommy brain fog is real, but just bear with me. Your brain has been actually enriched! Just like in adolescence. In your post pregnant state you’ll also be able to experience those increased capabilities of learning if you allow yourself the peace of mind. Let’s start viewing our brain differently and expecting the best from our enhanced capacities.
Nutrition is also a big part of the puzzle. In order for your brain cells to multiply they need to receive food sources that will allow them to thrive. There are 4 foods I want to highlight that have the ability to stimulate your brain’s functioning when you’re feeling foggy.
You might know about the health benefits of blueberries and how berries have been shown to significantly improve the working memory of senior citizens. When it comes to being a brain food, blueberries work on so many areas at once it’s pretty incredible. They increase this production of new brain cells, but also protect you from inflammation, different types of damage and cognitive decline to name a few. The dark blue color of the skin is responsible for growing more brain cells. It might be that blackberries and black currents have this same phytonutrient called anthocyanins, but they haven’t been studied as much. If you’ve got access to fresh blueberries consume a cup a day to get these benefits. The extract of blueberries has been shown to be as effective. It’s an pretty tasty way to eat yourself to a sharper brain.
By drinking green tea you’re also doing your brain a favor. The phytonutrients in green tea also stimulate the production of new brain cells among other health benefits. In addition, green tea will also reduce inflammation and act as an antioxidant. You want to be careful with the caffeine. Even though it’s only half to a third of regular tea if you’re drinking a lot of caffeine, the benefits will decrease (coffee anyone?). And if you’re pregnant limit yourself to a cup of green tea a day or increase your intake of folate. Like with all ingredients, quality is really important. You can also opt for matcha, which contains more of the beneficial phytonutrients than regular green tea.
Turmeric is probably one of my favorite spices. I can only rejoice in the fact that it also has brain boosting properties. It stimulates the production of new brain cells and decreases inflammation, which is a key held by all the nutrients mentioned and important for cognitive function. If you’re using it add cracked black pepper to increase absorption. This combination also has a mood elevating effect, which can be great postpartum.
The last nutrient to make sure you add to the mix is omega 3. Your little one has used up your stores during the final trimester of pregnancy to grow its brain and nerves. New mothers are found to have half of the omega-3 level in their blood compared to men or non-pregnant/lactating women. To think that without DHA – the essential fatty acid component of omega-3 – your brain basically degenerates is a scary thought. And it explains some of the symptoms you might be experiencing even better. Like poor memory function, poor concentration, no focus, frayed nerves. By adding omega-3 fats to your diet you will be adding the highest quality fats to your diet that protect cognitive function, restore your brain and research has found high doses have are effective in fighting depression.
For more about how to add omega-3 to your diet, read the post on good fats.
When you do light cardio you will increase this production of new brain cells by 4 to 5 times. If you’re a first time mom, then I can really recommend (long) walks. Your baby will sleep like a dream and you’ll get some fresh air. Your postpartum body will thank you for staying active, something that’s a given when you have more than 1 little one. Our brains crave movement and actually weaken when we’re inactive. If walking is not your thing, find something you enjoy to do, maybe a zumba class, swimming with the baby or anything that will get your heart rate up. As long as you enjoy it as well otherwise it won’t be as beneficial!
There’s good news. Being touched stimulates a growing brain. If there’s something you’ll be getting a luxurious amount of with a baby then it’s snuggles, kisses and holding your little one close to your heart. It’s not just your little one who needs to be touched, but you need it just as much. We release the love hormone oxytocin when we’re touched, which grows our brain, reduces stress and improves our immune system, our mood and energizes us. So go out and hug your partner and kids.
Our brain is designed for excitement, love, joy and interest. When you feel good, your brain functions optimally. Our emotional wellbeing is of utmost importance for our brain to thrive. We find this fulfillment mostly in positive relationships that are caring and warm. The most important relationship as a new mom to feel secure in is the one with your partner. Invest precious time to feel loved and heard. Making date night a periodic priority is an investment that will do wonders for your emotional wellbeing.
A second area of relationships is finding other moms to connect with. This will allow you to share experiences and ensure you don’t feel lonely. Don’t underestimate the power of having strong mama’s in your environment to encourage you and to spend time with. From an evolutionary standpoint we’re social animals and we need other mama’s to model, to help and to laugh with. This will also release that oxytocin. Remember: It takes a village!
As we’ve discussed earlier your brain has gone through a revolution by becoming a mom. You’ve got new capabilities like greater efficiency, resiliency, motivation and also increased emotional intelligence. Since your brain’s in this state of growth any new hobby or learning you do will come easier. It doesn’t have to be a big undertaking like getting a degree in a new area. But a small activity like learning a new language through an app, a photography class you’ve always wanted to follow or some adventures in the kitchen. Nowadays there’s a free tutorial for everything online if you can’t afford to get away. But allow yourself this luxury of novelty, your brain will thank you and it will help you change your mindset about your ever shrinking mommy brain.
7. Gratitude Is The Best Attitude
Lastly, even the scientist can’t ignore our need for spiritual connection. The research on the brain finds we need to feel like we belong on this planet in whatever form fits you. Prayer, meditation, mindfulness are all great ways to feel connected. The most effective and beautiful way to whatever your beliefs is by expressing gratitude. There’s nothing that will turn things around more quickly than realizing how many things there are to be grateful for. Starting with the gift of life you have the privilege of enjoying right now. I like to tell my son how grateful I am for the day we had together, for the fun things he says, for how well he listens and cuddles when I put him to bed. I always walk out his bedroom feeling lighter.
More Than Capable
Your brain has become better now that you’re a mom. Scientists estimate the shrinkage lasts for 6months to 2 years after giving birth. I believe we live in an environment that will keep us frazzled, forgetful and feeling less than capable if we don’t compound these simple ways to help further enrich our brain.