Mom Alert: Things Your Doctor Hasn't Told You About The Causes of "Mommy Brain"

Monday, April 21, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood

"Mommy brain" is a common experience among new mothers. Often beginning during pregnancy, symptoms can last through the first year of a child's life and occasionally longer. Women in the throes of this phenomena report having less ability to concentrate or overall feelings of being mentally foggy. Forgetting details--such as what you walked into that room for--is common, as is realizing at the end of the day that you're wearing two different shoes.

What Causes Mommy Brain? 

Adaptive Brain Changes

Though forgetfulness and lack of focus may seem counterproductive, there may be very good biological reasons for it. According to 2010 research in "Behavioral Neuroscience", mothers' brains actually change and reshape with the birth of a child, leading to improved maternal care and attachment processes1. This study also found that mothers' brains grew even further during the first four months postpartum, and the warmer the feelings of connection to the child, the higher the rate of brain growth. These alterations were found to be persistent. 

That's right; mothers' brains are not only forming new connections, they are growing markedly, and permanently, in direct response to their infant.  

"So....having babies makes you smarter? I knew all that pushing was good for something!"

The following areas showed the most predominant changes:

  • The Hypothalamus: a brain region involved in both motivation and memory
  • The Amygdala and substantia nirga: both of which inform emotional input and reward processing 
  • The Parietal Lobe: an area involved in interpreting environmental cues, or sensory integration functions
  • The Prefrontal Cortex: the region which handles reasoning skills and overall judgment


This happens because it behooves us to sharpen our memories and improve relational abilities once we have something so precious to protect, and biology takes care of it for us automatically. Boom.

As if Mother Nature would leave anything to chance. 

Unfortunately, as focus shifts to make children a priority and facilitate brain growth, this rewiring process may make some women feel discombobulated during a time when they already feel overwhelmed. That's less awesome, as is the issue of misdiagnosis.

Post Baby Exhaustion and Memory

This rewiring process is rarely diagnosed in women presenting to their physicians postpartum. Instead, mental fogginess is usually attributed to the feelings of tiredness that accompany new parents. Altered sleep can affect memory responses leading to a diagnosis of exhaustion. However, responding to children and lack of sleep is rarely the whole story. Being told, "You're just tired," is a disservice to women. Not only is this disheartening for women who know that there is something else going on, it's often incorrect.  

"Of course, I'm tired, jerk off. But I've been tired before and still managed to wear matching shoes..."

Many general practitioners are not up on the type of neuroscience data that is vital in the treatment of postpartum women. Ensuring that your therapist or physician has a clear understanding of these processes will assist with accurate diagnosis.

Can Anxiety Cause Postpartum Forgetfulness? 

In addition to adaptive brain changes, there may be other issues that contribute to this "foggy" feeling. Higher anxiety levels in pregnancy, postpartum and beyond can cause a feeling of unreality or a sensation of being "dazed" in addition to more traditional anxiety symptoms.

Difficulty remembering things is also a common symptom in anxious individuals. The more dangerous the envoronment is perceived to be, the less adaptive it is to waste energy on remembering, which may change how information is stored.  What's the point in remembering where you put your berries if you are about to be eaten by a tiger? Better to focus your attention on where that tiger might be hiding so you can be prepared. You can find your berries (or socks) later.

"Fuck remembering where you put your socks! There's danger afoot!"
Get it? Socks? Foot? 

Because monthly cycling and postpartum hormones can also alter anxiety, intrusive thoughts and memory, these issues can be difficult to tease apart. But understanding the relationship may assist women in working towards proper diagnosis, or at least feelings of normalcy. 

Lack of Proper Nutrition and Brain Fog

Nutritional deficiencies are commonplace, though many do not recognize forgetfulness or brain fog as a symptom. Whole food sources are key to maintaining proper brain function, so mothers must ensure that they are eating a nutrient rich diet to combat memory issues triggered by deficiencies. So what nutrients should we look out for? 

Lack of brain-boosting foods, like those rich in Omega 3s, can hinder memory function as can deficiencies in magnesium. Recent research on magnesium published in "Neron" notes that magnesium can increase the plasticity of the brain, enhance short and long-term memory as well as increase working memory capacity2. Working memory is the part you use to store information temporarily, like remembering what you walked into the bedroom to get. 

"I came in here to get....chocolate? I'm pretty sure it was chocolate."

Calcium and vitamin D depletion with pregnancy and breast-feeding can also be a big issue, especially in those who were already deficient before child bearing. Vitamin D in particular is a critical element in memory function3. Lack of this nutrient may lead to confusion and trouble concentrating in addition to altering sleeping ability. Low vitamin D can also affect immune system function and lead to symptoms of depression as seen in Seasonal Affective Disorder (the winter blues)

Lack of vitamin D can also contribute to thyroid issues, discussed below. Because nutritional deficiencies can also cause anxiety symptoms, the interconnected possibilities are endless. 

Exploring your dietary needs can improve mental health functioning, decrease "mommy brain" symptoms and lead to better physical health. Not to mention the social benefits of wearing the same shoes.

Hypothyroidism or Thyroid Strain

In his book Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms When My Lab Tests Are Normal?4, Datis Kharrazian reports that these fuzzy brain and memory issues can often result from an under active thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is responsible for numerous activities within the body, including hormone regulation and glucose metabolism. Because the brain uses glucose to function properly, those who are unable to process glucose correctly due to a malfunctioning thyroid gland have less available for energy as well as memory and concentration. 

The thyroid may also cause the adrenals to pump out additional stress hormone to pull glucose stores from the liver in order to stay alert, a process that eventually exhausts the adrenals and may trigger additional symptoms, including anxiety and trouble sleeping. 

"Wake up you lazy adrenal bastards!"

According to Kharrazian, shifts in the immune system and variable estrogen levels during or following pregnancy may trigger thyroid complications. Those who have a history of using birth control pills, or who have returned to them following a pregnancy, may be especially at risk due to the way they alter hormone levels and elevate thyroid stress, Kharrizian says. Poor nutrition and chronic stress may also contribute to these issues, suggesting that a holistic approach may work best in changing the cycle. 

In summary, "mommy brain" can be caused by several factors that may work together or individually:

  • Adaptive brain rewiring and growth during pregnancy and postpartum
  • Exhaustion
  • Anxiety Issues 
  • Nutritional Deficiencies                                
  • Thyroid Strain/Adrenal Stress

At least you may have a good physical reason for forgetting to put socks on the children. But who cares, right? It wasn't like they were going to keep them on anyway. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms (when my lab tests are normal)
Exploration of the causes and effects of thyroid malfunction on mental health and other body systems

Misdiagnosed: The Adrenal Fatigue Link
Chiropractor and researcher Steven Zodkoy on the link between the adrenal glands and mental health issues including anxiety, depression, insomnia and PTSD. Physical health issues including fibromyalgia, migraines and weight gain are also covered.