Memory Loss During Pregnancyby Rani Long
You feel as big as a house. You get heartburn each day. You have to go to the bathroom every ten minutes. And, where did you put those keys?!
Amidst the many changes your body is challenged with during pregnancy, you must also deal with the effects of pregnancy on your mental health. It is no secret that your emotions are likely to be more delicate than ever, but your short-term memory may take a beating as well, especially in the third trimester. If you're lucky, forgetfulness will not be among the many trials you face as a pregnant woman. But it is a common symptom during pregnancy, and like everything else you are experiencing, this is not your imagination!
No longer dismissed at just "one of those things" you must deal with while pregnant, some medical researchers are addressing the problem by investigating various possible causes for the short-term memory loss. For instance, it has been suggested that it is the change in sleep patterns during pregnancy that affect a woman's ability to remember information, rather than changes to the brain. Also, a plethora of well-meaning health articles stress that an upcoming birth is more than enough to overwhelm an expectant mother, with thoughts and concerns plaguing her so that her memory may be more hazy than usual.
Other studies attribute weakened memory to iron deficiency during pregnancy. If your body doesn't have enough iron to fuel hemoglobin production for you and your baby, you're likely to develop iron-deficient anemia. Some common symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, irritability and yes, forgetfulness. From about the twentieth week of pregnancy, the little life inside you has been using up much of your iron intake, so break out the lentils and green leafy vegetables!
But let's not forget the hormones. Always the hormones. According to a 1998 report in Fit Pregnancy magazine, at least one study has found that pregnant women's brains get smaller in the third trimester. British researchers scanned the brains of ten moms-to-be during their last trimesters and again a few months after their babies were born and discovered that brain cell volume decreases during pregnancy, only to plump up again sometime after delivery. The researchers speculate that hormones cause the shrinkage; they hope further study will prove their hypothesis.
Whether or not our brains actually shrink, there is no escaping the wrath of hormones, causing both mental and physical changes. Pamela Keenan, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, has shown that women in their third trimester of pregnancy experience forgetfulness approximately fifteen percent more than the average person. One possible explanation is the high level of oxytocin, (a natural hormone produced in women during pregnancy and while nursing), during the third trimester. As Dr. Keenan notes, "Oxytocin is known to have an amnestic effect, which may contribute to a weakened memory." But that's not all. According to Dr. Keenan's studies, the third trimester of pregnancy, when estrogen levels peaked, was also characterized by greater levels of reported anxiety and depression. "This was surprising, especially because pregnancy is so often described as a blissful, almost euphoric time," said Dr. Keenan. Curious about the validity of the anxiety and depression measures of the study, Dr. Keenan divided the questions into two categories: cognitive concerns and somatic (or physical) concerns. She found that the category that women felt most anxious about, especially toward the end of their pregnancy, was physical: fatigue, weight gain, inability to work, altered appearance, and disinterest in sex were all concerns expressed. All the symptoms of their depression she found, really had to do with simple physical concerns of pregnancy rather than genuine feelings of sadness. Continuing along similar lines of study, Dr. Keenan is collaborating on several other projects with Wayne State/Detroit Medical Center scientists and clinicians. For example, she and Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg are studying the effects of decreasing hormone levels not only on memory, but also brain structures associated with memory.
So with everything else you need to keep track of these days, you must eat your spinach, sleep regularly, remain calm and mellow and also monitor your brain shrinkage. Not much you can do about the hormones...but it's all part of the waiting game of pregnancy. Your brain functions will spring back properly into place as your body re-claims itself following birth.
In a more serious vein of thought, it's refreshing to see research unfolding on the subject of memory loss during pregnancy. Dr. Keenan's research, for instance, has been a welcome relief for many. "Women are generally very eager to participate in these studies," Dr. Keenan says. "They are glad that somebody is finally studying the symptoms and complaints that they have known about for so long."Rani Long, writer and mother of 1-year-old Alden, lives in New York's Hudson Valley.
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