Brain Fog: Is Mom Brain Real?

Is mom brain or brain fog after having children real?
Many women experience “mom brain” or increased brain fog after having a baby

You’ve probably heard the term “mom brain.” Maybe you’ve even used it yourself to describe feeling more forgetful, having a harder time finding the right word, or feeling less sharp in general after having a baby. And while it’s not a medical diagnosis, the majority of women experience brain fog postpartum. But is there any science behind “mom brain” or is it literally all in our heads?

Gray Matter Shrinks During Pregnancy!

Brain fog, like mom brain, isn’t a medical term, but most of us know it as the feeling of poor concentration, feeling like we’re pushing through jell-o trying to form a thought, or feeling slower and less clear than usual. There are so many factors that contribute to brain fog, but experiencing brain fog in the postpartum period is normally attributed to a few main causes. First of all, the gray matter in our brains actually shrinks during pregnancy! Gray matter is the region of the brain where processing and responding to social signals happens, so it makes sense that women may feel slower or more confused in situations like work, play group, or even making small talk in the grocery line after having a baby. And while shrinking gray matter might sound scary, there’s a good reason it happens when we’re pregnant: Neurologists believe this creates more room for moms to respond to urgent situations and threats, develop important maternal instincts, and better tend to their babies’ needs.

Postpartum Hormones and Brain Fog

As if shrinking gray matter isn’t wild enough, women experience the most dramatic hormone shift of human life immediately after birth. During pregnancy our progesterone and estrogen levels increase far beyond pre-pregnancy levels. This shift in and of itself can cause changes in our mental state, including increased fatigue (thanks, progesterone). But the more pronounced shift occurs after birth when estrogen and progesterone plummet to levels not otherwise experienced outside of menopause. This sharp hormone drop effects the brain in many ways, including worsened memory and cognition, reduced mitochondrial function which can lead to less mental energy, and even poorer mood. The good news is our hormones start to rebound as soon as our body gears up to begin menstruating again, but for women who breastfeed, this can take a year or longer.

Increased Stress After Baby

Another big factor in “mom brain” is the increased stress and anxiety we experience after having a new baby. Stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline have many known negative effects on our brains. Prolonged or chronic stress can result in worse memory, decreased cognitive function, brain atrophy, and even a reduced resilience to future stressors. What’s more, it’s nearly impossible to learn or retain new information when we’re under stress. Given the prolonged stress of being a new mom or growing a family, it’s easy to understand how postpartum women may experience increased brain fog.

Sleep Deprivation and the Brain

When we add sleep deprivation on top of this brain function declines even further. Healthy women require 8-9 hours of quality sleep per night to feel their best. Remember getting that much sleep? Me either! It’s normal for newborns to wake every 2-3 hours overnight to eat, and moms are the ones typically taking the brunt of the sleep deprivation. And it’s not like we can “sleep while the baby sleeps” without housework piling up. But a bad night’s sleep starts impacting our brain health as soon as the next day and only worsens with chronic lack of sleep. Side effects of poor sleep include a shorter attention span, a reduction in learning and processing ability, feeling mentally “slow” and confused, and even increased negative emotional processing! That means that on top of feeling foggy and incapable of concentrating you may also feel more irritable, emotionally volatile, anxious, and more.

Multitasking Mama

Another important contributor to the “mom brain” phenomenon is the massive amount of multitasking moms do on a daily basis. Not only are we in charge of our own schedules, we also have the needs and schedules of the entire household to consider, including all of the doctor appointments, baby items to restock, a running grocery list, bills to pay, and on and on. This mental “clutter” can make our brains feel disorganized, and constantly switching between “tabs” in our brains actually makes us less efficient and focused, even when we’re not multitasking.

Mom Brain: It’s Real!

By this point, two things are clear: Mom brain is real, and moms are actual superheroes for being able to do all that we do every day! And while your hormones will eventually find balance and the sleep will get better, becoming a mother changes our brains and impacts our cognitive function, sometimes for better and sometimes not. You can probably do more in a 20 minute crap nap than you used to get done in 3 hours, but that doesn’t mean you’re not struggling to focus and keep everything together. If your brain fog is getting in the way of your life, a postpartum coach can help you hone in on the root causes, find balance, and figure out what to prioritize to feel better. You can book a complimentary 30-minute Discover Call with me here to get expert advice about your health concerns and goals.


References:

1. Dr. Jolene Brighten, Do Hormones Affect Brain Health?

2. NIH National Library of Medicine, The Sleep Deprived Human Brain

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