Busting Myths on Pregnancy Brain - The Truth about Pregnesia and How to Deal with It

By Lisa Franchi on September 27, 2012

If you are a mum, you must have experienced plenty of changes not just in your physical appearance but also in your emotions, attitude and way of thinking when you were pregnant. Have you recalled forgetting where you put your car keys? What you walked into the supermarket for? Or how to cook your husband’s favourite dish that you’ve been preparing all these years? They call it “pregnancy brain”.

Also called pregnesia, this condition is believed to affect a significant number of women. But there were also notions that it is just a myth. So how true is it? Does pregnancy brain really exist? If yes, to what extent?

The truth about Pregnancy Brain

Several studies were conducted to determine whether pregnesia exists or not. Surveys show that about 2/3 of women reported that pregnancy affected their mental functions, particularly their memory.

In 2007, Julie Henry and Peter Rendell conducted a meta-analysis of 14 studies published about the effect of pregnancy in women’s cognition. They found that being pregnant does have an effect. However, it is relatively subtle.  However, their study has led the public to more confusion because the study was worded in such way that it meant significant memory loss.

A study published in 2011 has brought back the doubts on whether pregnesia is true or not by showing evidences that pregnant women are more likely to suffer from mental impairment than non-pregnant women.

Another attempt to understand the concept of pregnancy brain was made by a group of Australian researchers led by Helen Christensen from the Centre for Mental Health Research in the Australian National University. They found that there was no evidence of mental decline during pregnancy. However, the researchers did not overthrow the fact that pregnesia exists. According to them, it does. What their findings suggest is that a woman’s brain remains as it is during pregnancy although sometimes, she may experience deficits in memories.

What causes pregnesia?

·         Hormonal Imbalances – according to Dr Louann Brizendine from the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California in San Francisco, the levels of progesterone and oestrogen in the brain increase by 14 to 15 times during pregnancy, which affect all kinds of neurons. Another hormone that is overproduced, particularly by the time the woman gives birth, is oxytocin, which also affects the brain. The hormonal imbalance during pregnancy may also affect the woman’s spatial memory which usually causes forgetfulness, researchers from the University of Bradford found.

·         Stress, lack of sleep, and multitasking – these things can slow down anyone’s mental function regardless of gender. Pregnant women who do not get enough sleep and rest tend to become more irritable, anxious, and mentally weak to perform well even on simple tasks.

·         Changes in priority – Dr Brizendine says that the IQ of pregnant women doesn’t change, but priorities do.

What can be done to overcome pregnesia?

·         Take notes. The best way to deal with forgetfulness and other memory issues is to track a record of what you have to do in a day or in a week. Making your own to-do list will help you get things done on time. Whether it’s writing on your notepad or creating reminders on your mobile phone, it really helps. Before going to the supermarket, you may want to write down all the stuff you will need to buy to avoid missing out important items. Aside from taking notes, it can be helpful to voice it out as well. For instance, you say it loud where you will put your car keys, where you hid important papers, or what you will be doing after.

·         De-stress. Pregnancy is likely to affect your mood. During the 10-month period, you may also have to deal with other things that could aggravate feelings of distress. So make sure you give yourself time to relax and unwind. You may also wish to enrol in a yoga class to learn some techniques that can keep your anxiety levels low.

·         Have enough sleep.  Lack of sleep can have significant impact on your cognition so make sure you are able to sleep 7 or 8 hours at night. Taking a nap during midday has also been proven to improve mental health.


Sources of this article:

Louann Brizendine, MD , director, Women¹s Mood and Hormone Clinic, University of California at San Francisco.

Christensen, H. The British Journal of Psychiatry, February 2010; vol 196: pp 126-132.

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