Pregnancy affects almost every aspect of a new mom's body, and the brain is no exception. From chemical changes to blood flow patterns, her brain is affected by many different variables. Hormones and neurotransmitters send all different messages between the body and the brain so it's no wonder that moms are "hormonal" during their reproductive stages. Her brain can hardly process all the changes and the changes influence her mood.
Every new mom knows what "pregnancy brain" feels like and can attest to the feelings of confusion and ineptness. It's as though all the brainpower in her body has been redirected to the baby, leaving her wondering where she left her glasses and the remote. Pregnancy brain often carries over into mommy brain for a year or two after birth where words just don't come as easily to mom and she mixes up all her kids' names.
In some ways, an expectant mom's brain is enhanced and in others it is compromised. Our primal brains are wired to be attentive to our newborns and our family's survival to the detriment of everything else.
In fact, as you'll read, a new mom's brain actually goes on a pruning rampage, preserving areas of the brain that have to do with emotional connection and care for her baby while ruthlessly ignoring everything else. So the focus of a mom-to-be's brain changes during this fragile time. It's no wonder a woman's feelings of autonomy are compromised. The whole of her being is readjusting to center around her little one.
15 Oxytocin Actually Takes Delivery Pain Away
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Oxytocin, the love hormone, plays several roles in pregnancy and motherhood. During labor, the hormone is partially responsible for creating contractions, and at the same time it also helps diminish the pain of them. In fact, pitocin is a form of oxytocin and that's why it's used as an induction medication.
Since touch is a major trigger of the release of oxytocin, holding your baby skin-to-skin causes oxytocin to flood your system and increases the bonding effect. In fact, holding your newborn against your skin immediately after birth is the highest level of oxytocin you'll ever experience in your life.
Oxytocin is also the hormone responsible for the milk let-down sensation when breastfeeding. There's a connection between a mom and her bond with her baby that helps her milk let down. That's why, when a breastfeeding mom hears a baby cry, she can feel her milk let down. Her responsiveness to the baby causes her body to release oxytocin, which then causes the milk to let down.
14 Cortisol Means Mom Is Hyper Aware
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The stress hormone rises in the second trimester of pregnancy. By late in pregnancy, cortisol reaches a level that's two to three times the normal levels. This high level of cortisol seems to be a major influence in the healthy brain and lung development of the fetus in preparation for birth.
This continued production of high levels of cortisol also makes acute stress less troublesome to a pregnant mom since she has already become adapted to these new high levels of stress hormone.
After her baby is born, a mom who experienced high levels of cortisol during pregnancy tends to show signs of greater attentiveness to her newborn. It's as though the primitive mechanisms of her brain were preparing mom to be sympathetic to and take good care of her new little one. There's a careful balance though, because a huge change in cortisol levels can also trigger mood disorders in postpartum moms.
13 Cognitive Disruptions From Sleep Deprivation
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It's a highly researched fact that lack of sleep gives you memory problems. For a pregnant mom who has trouble sleeping to the mom of a newborn, sleep deprivation can cause major "mommy brain." In physical terms, blood flow and metabolism in the brain slow when mom experiences a lack of sleep.
Things like simple decision making, attention, and emotional intelligence are compromised after just 16 hours of wakefulness and only get worse from there. Without proper sleep to refresh the brain, normal functioning of the brain is disrupted.
It's important to sneak in sleep whenever possible. It's difficult in the first several weeks or months to get adequate sleep with a newborn, but it's essential to put sleep before chores and other tasks. And be gentle on yourself. Knowing that sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment gives you a free pass to forget things and not be so hard on yourself for it. Don't expect yourself to be in prime form until your nights get a little longer.
12 Estrogen, The Neuroprotectant
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This hormone raises rapidly in the first trimester and it, along with HcG, is the primary cause of morning sickness. It is also to blame for the enlargement of breasts around the second trimester. Estrogen also helps trigger the development of some of your baby's organs and bodily systems. It even helps your body respond better to oxytocin, which we discussed earlier.
While estrogen is primarily a reproductive hormone and is typically secreted by the ovaries, estrogen also has an affect on the brain. In the brain, estrogen helps prevent against memory loss, helps regulate body temperature, and helps increase serotonin. In fact, it is thought to be a neuroprotectant that provides cognitive support.
So even while the rest of your body seems to be draining your brainpower, estrogen comes in to help counter those effects.
11 Fight Or Flight
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When faced with a high-anxiety or life-or-death situation, your body will immediately produce adrenaline. Adrenaline signals your brain and body to go into fight or flight mode. The body senses a threat and responds by deciding whether to run or stand ground.
The pupils dilate, the heart picks up speed and the blood is diverted away from everything but the muscles, brain, heart and lungs as the body prepares its next move.
These are your momma bear instincts kicking in. Hopefully you're never in an acute stress situation like this, but if you are, it's important to minimize this effect and to get out of this fight-or-flight mode as soon as possible. Remove yourself from the situation as soon as you can and practice relaxation techniques.
Encountering an acute stressor early in pregnancy gives a woman a higher chance of miscarriage in the first trimester as it diverts blood away from her baby. It can also cause preterm labor in the second and early third trimesters, so that's why it's important to eliminate or minimize these acute stressors ASAP.
10 Overworked Olfactories
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The nose of a pregnant woman is practically bionic. She can smell everything better than she's ever smelled before, whether she wants to or not (usually not!). Many pregnancy aversions come from associations with an overwhelming aroma.
Smoke, perfume, lotion, spices, candles and other products with strong smells are enough to make a pregnant woman's already-sensitive stomach churn. Even smells she found found pleasurable prior to pregnancy can become hideous to her.
A strong nose is also associated with morning sickness as women born without a sense of smell do not experience morning sickness. The heightened sense of smell is thought to be caused by sensitive olfactory receptors. With the increased blood flow to the brain and increased estrogen levels in the body, the olfactories work on overdrive during pregnancy.
9 Better Eyesight
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For some women, pregnancy can cause a temporary improvement in eyesight. This is one side effect no pregnant woman would mind having! Doctors aren't sure why, but it could be due to increased corneal hydration or blood sugar fluctuations that take place during pregnancy.
It could be caused by the increased blood flow to the brain, the cocktail of hormones circulating the body, or the water retention that pregnant women experience. The pressure from water retention, for example, can change the shape of the eye and improve eyesight in some cases.
Perhaps there's also a primal adaptation involved in eyesight improvements that helped our ancestors with survival. Either way, the change is usually temporary and eyesight returns to normal following birth. Because of that, pregnancy is not a good time to get your prescription adjusted or to have laser eye surgery.
8 Gray Matter Pruning
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Researches have made a fascinating recent discovery that after having a baby, gray matter in the brain is pruned so that the most important areas of the brain are strengthened. Gray matter is where many neuron connections are formed. Through pruning, your brain fine tunes the most crucial tasks of taking care of a newborn and allows other less important connections to waste away.
The changes to the brain caused by synaptic pruning last for around two years after birth. This same type of pruning happens in our adolescent years when our brains shut down, or prune, areas that are weak. During pregnancy, your brain does the same thing to hone in on your baby, making you better able to understand your baby's needs and take care of the baby. Your mother-child attachment is improved through these changes.
7 Mommy Brain
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Mommy brain is real and every pregnant woman and new mom can attest to it! Putting your wallet in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard makes you feel like you've completely suddenly lost all your good sense. However, mommy brain is completely normal. Your brain is simply readjusting its focus on your emotional connection to the baby to the detriment of almost everything else.
Mommy brain is likely caused by a mixture of sleep disturbances, hormone upheaval, and the body's way of using all your energy for baby development. Pregnancy literally depletes you of your energy, focus, and brainpower as it diverts attention to the baby. Your brain will likely begin to return to normal within a few months of giving birth, increasing significantly at one year.
6 Shrinkage And Expansion
During pregnancy, the brain actually shrinks and by six months postpartum, it returns to normal size. Scientists aren't sure exactly why this happens, but it could be due to how hormones change the brain's metabolism. A pregnant woman has roughly double the stress hormones, 20 times the progesterone, and 300 times the estrogen during pregnancy than when they're not pregnant.
This cocktail is the perfect concoction to disturb normal physiological and mental processes.
Studies also show that a pregnant woman's brain cell volume decreases in the third trimester. Meanwhile, the centers in your brain that control your emotional sensitivity become more responsive, making you instinctively more attuned to your baby. The brain seems to naturally hone in on the baby while giving other mental capacities a secondary focus.
5 Endorphins Can Either Help Or Hurt Mom
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Endorphins are a pregnant woman's best friend (oh, and you thought it was a diamond-themed push present). Endorphins are a chemical produced by your brain that offer pain-relieving and calming side effects as a welcome contrast to the pain and challenges of pregnancy and childbirth.
Endorphin levels rise toward the end of pregnancy and peak during labor in women that don't use any pain medication. In fact, the rise of endorphins during labor helps you handle the pain of labor. Then, after you give birth, the rush of endorphins produces that high euphoric feeling you feel holding your newborn baby.
When endorphin levels dip in the postpartum period, it can contribute to the baby blues and postpartum depression. The hormone seems to have a protective quality against stress and frustration.
4 Serotonin Helps To Regulate Mom's Moods
Another feel-good chemical from the brain, the neurotransmitter serotonin helps lift and stabilize mood. Now, there is a strong link between estrogen and serotonin. Estrogen is required for the healthy production of serotonin. So, when estrogen levels drop off dramatically after childbirth, serotonin levels may also plunge leaving a new mom susceptible to postpartum depression, anxiety and OCD.
Serotonin also works closely with dopamine and cortisol to regulate mood. And their levels can help identify women at risk for preterm birth. Yoga, exercise and massage therapy have been proven effective for lowering cortisol levels, raising serotonin and dopamine levels and helping to prevent prenatal depression.
3 Blood Flow Can Cause Headaches
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Blood volume increases by 50% during pregnancy, causing an increase in blood flow throughout the body, including elevated cerebral blood flow. This helps blood bring oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby and is responsible for that pregnancy glow. Blood flow is also directed away from the forebrain to the hindbrain.
The forebrain is responsible for helping us multitask and short-term memory while the hindbrain is responsible for basic survival skills. It makes sense that pregnancy would elevate our survival instincts above everything else.
As your blood volume and heart rate increase, so does your blood pressure. The increased blood pressure in an expectant mom's body may also cause tension headaches. These can be amplified by poor posture, dehydration and stress. Headaches can also be a symptom of preeclampsia, so mention this symptom to your doctor who will be monitoring your blood pressure changes.
2 Depression And Anxiety
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Some women may be susceptible to depression and anxiety during pregnancy and during the postpartum period. In fact, an estimated 13% of women will suffer from depression either during pregnancy or after. The incredible hormone shifts and changing chemistry may disrupt normal brain functioning and mood.
Pregnancy causes profound changes in the body which can trigger mental changes.
Prenatal and postpartum depression are marked by increased crying, feelings of overwhelm, lack of motivation, inability to feel pleasure and other symptoms. Anxiety symptoms include constant worry, feelings of dread, compromised sleep and floods of "what ifs."
It's important to take care of yourself during pregnancy and after your baby's birth, incorporating relaxation and stress relief into your daily routine. Tell your doctor if you're experiencing any symptoms of anxiety or depression so you can work together to find a solution.
1 Dopamine Helps With Milk Production
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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the hypothalamus that's considered the reward center of the brain. It is produced during sex, breastfeeding and birth as those activities produce feelings of accomplishment and pleasure. It's like your body's way of giving you a medal!
And it also gives you the motivation to achieve your goals in the first place. In contrast, a dopamine deficiency can lead to feelings of depression such as apathy, concentration problems, and lack of motivation. Exercise and meditation are two natural ways you can increase dopamine levels.
Dopamine also has a role in influencing prolactin production. Dopamine actually slows the production of prolactin, which is the hormone that regulates breast milk production. The more dopamine in your body, the less prolactin in produced. However, prolactin enhances the production of dopamine, which is kind of a Catch-22.
So your body has to keep a delicate balance between these two chemicals, among others, to maintain optimal milk production.