the science of nutrition

A Neuroscientist Explains the Science Behind "Mom Brain"

Dr. Nicole Avena

A Neuroscientist Explains the Science Behind

Table of contents

  • Intro
  • What is "Mom Brain"?
  • What are the hormonal shifts in pregnancy that affect our brain?
  • Is There Anything we can do to Support our Cognition as New Moms?
  • The Bottom Line

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I'm sure many of you have heard the phrase oh it's "mommy brain" and felt the cognitive fogginess of new motherhood but not really known much about it, or how our why it happens which is Needed asked Neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Avena exactly what the science says about it all.

What is "Mom Brain"?

Suddenly forgetting that appointment you made last week, or to take out the chicken to defrost for dinner can be not only frustrating but also exhausting. On top of taking care of a newborn, you may be experiencing “mommy brain”. Reports show that 80% of new moms experience working memory trouble during pregnancy and postpartum.

The working memory allows our brains to absorb information without losing track of what we are already doing. It allows us to process information and utilize it at a future time. This is what plays a big role in mommy brain- and the forgetting to take the chicken out of the freezer for dinner.

You’re probably asking yourself why this happens. And the answer is it is a huge combination of factors that influence our working memory. One of the components to feeling this way is sleep. During times when we get regular, deep sleep our brains take time to rest and recover- so they are at their sharpest potential come morning. With a newborn, that is essentially unheard of for most. Sleep, in general, plays a large role in mediating general cognitive function. The two main sleep states- the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) stage- have roles in sleep-dependent memory processing and consolidation.2 New moms are often awake multiple times a night feeding baby, which makes it difficult to achieve the recommended amount of deep sleep.

Another component of mommy brain is the long list of newborn to-dos and schedules that are far from your normal routine. Our daily routine allows us to function at a higher cognitive capacity. Without it, we can expect to not feel ourselves, and therefore can easily lose track of our appointments and prior commitments. 

Finally- and likely the largest component of mommy brain- the hormonal shifts that occur both during pregnancy and post-partum.

What are the hormonal shifts in pregnancy that affect our brain?

Levels of progesterone and estrogen rise exponentially during pregnancy to support fetal development, and rapidly decline after delivery. Additionally, hormones like testosterone, cortisol and oxytocin fluctuate during this transition. Fluctuating levels of hormones impact brain function and structure.

While some of the brain adaptations support us in attuning to our baby’s needs and facilitating mother-baby attachment, other structural changes take place that, such as in the hippocampus can contribute to feelings of mommy brain. The hippocampus plays a role in memory and learning. During pregnancy and early postpartum, this part of the brain actually shrinks – contributing to reduced recall and working memory. 

This may seem daunting- like you are doomed during postpartum to brain fog and bad memory. Many of these brain changes can be attributed to the drastic shift in hormones that occur after giving birth. The body experiences a sharp change in both cortisol and estrogen postpartum.

In the literature, this change in serum estrogen and cortisol levels post-partum had a direct link back to late pregnancy and early post-partum period verbal recall and processing speed scores.

But, these instinctual changes do happen for a reason. Studies show that new moms often have less grey matter found in the brain, and this change in grey matter predicted maternal attachment after birth. 

The adaptations the brain makes to shift into motherhood allow the brain to become more specialized- and they are proven to be beneficial to parenting outcomes. These volume and matter changes were visualized for up to 2 years postpartum, meaning it may take the brain longer to become specialized for some versus immediately after birth- but the  benefits from these changes aid in building a bond between mom and baby.

Is there anything we can do to support our cognition as new moms?

Although mom brain happens to many, it can be supported with proper nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle changes.

One step I recommend taking off the bat is routine management.  While every day can look vastly different as a new mom, you can create habits and rhythms to support your working memory.

Some moms find it helpful to create anchors that support a more "normal" routine, like taking a morning and evening walk or having meals around the same time. If you find it difficult to manage all of your baby's feedings and nap times, there are apps that can gently remind you.

Another component you can incorporate to aid in brain fog is supplements. Outside of a standard prenatal, some supplements can help eliminate the mental load often associated with a newborn.

Adaptogens like ashwagandha and lion’s mane work with your hormones to support your cognitive health and stress response.  Other nutrients that have been proven to assist new moms are carotenoids and fatty acids. Carotenoids protect the brain from oxidative stress, and support brain function and health. Phospholipids like phosphatidylserine have been shown to preserve brain cell integrity and support overall cognitive function. Looking for specific supplements with these ingredients may help lessen the burden of “mommy brain”. 

The Bottom Line

All in all, we can’t prevent every sign and symptom that comes with postpartum - but we can aim to lessen the metal toll it can take on both mom and partner.

Mommy brain is no joke- and can affect anyone at any time during  postpartum. I recommend trying Needed’s Cognitive Support to support focus, attention, brain health and memory. All ingredients included are science-backed, and provide essential nutrients for mommy brain. 

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Dr. Nicole Avena, PhD

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy, and women’s health. In addition to over 100 peer-reviewed scholarly publications, Dr. Avena has written several popular books, including Why Diets Fail; What to Eat When You're Pregnant; What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler; and What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant.