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Woman's health

Brain food Part 1: Are you suffering from Baby brain?

Pregnant women have long complained about feeling fuzzy headed during their pregnancy and new Australian research is now confirming this phenomenon.

Researchers at Deakin University recently carried out a meta analysis of 20 studies involving more than 1200 women and found that cognitive function was poorer in pregnant than non pregnant women and affected four out of five pregnant women. 1

Changes included a decline in general cognitive functions, memory and executive functions (e.g. attention to detail, planning and problem solving). Changes began to occur early in pregnancy becoming more apparent by the third trimester.

These changes were characterised by minor lapses in memory rather than a mental impairment . Such as a pregnant women forgetting their keys or where they last parked their car. They could still complete complex tasks at work and in daily life but reported not feeling quite as ‘sharp’ mentally as normal.

Senior author Associate Professor Linda Byrne said the findings were consistent with recent research that has found a reduction in the volume of grey matter in the brain during the latter stages of pregnancy and persisting for up to two years postnatally. This is an adaptive phenomenon which enables a mother ‘s brain to adapt to her baby. To develop healthy bonds of attachment between mother and child so that she can decode the infants facial expressions, respond to it’s needs and make the transition into motherhood. 2

Could a healthy diet make a difference?

Absolutely! Although many of these mental adaptions during pregnancy are physically and hormonally driven there are a number of components naturally occurring in food that can assist cognitive functions, mood, mental health and development.

The greatest challenge facing women today is getting past all the distractions of a busy lifestyle long enough to be able to consume these healthy foods in sufficient quantity to really make a difference.

Lifestyle factors that may compete with a healthy diet

  • Commitment overload.

Balancing work and home commitments, maybe the needs of other children or sick relatives along with household chores such as shopping, cooking, cleaning and the laundry can all add to a pregnant woman’s energy requirements.

  • Fast foods

Working late can lead to meals being skipped, impulse buys, unhealthy food choices, takeaways and high energy snacks and confectionery thereby reducing the intake of dietary fibre from fresh fruit and vegetables and adding unnecessary calories, fat, salt and sugar to the diet.

  • Financial and social pressures

The prospect of dropping down to one salary for a while can increase feelings of anxiety and stress or necessitate working overtime in order to try to get financially ahead. This type of scenario may leave little time for a woman to relax and exercise or attend to her personal needs. A lack of family support can lead to feelings of isolation which may contribute to depression postnatally.3

  • Sleep deprivation

This can increase the hormone cortisol associated with the fight or flight response increasing feelings of stress. A lack of sleep can also increase the hormone Ghrelin that increases appetite and can lower Leptin the hormone associated with feelings of fullness leading to unnecessary weight gain.4

  • Dietary restrictions

Many women may also have pre-existing health issues requiring special dietary treatments for conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal upsets, food intolerance or allergies. Others may have simply adopted dairy free, gluten or meat free diets etc because it makes them feel better. Such restrictions do need careful management (ideally with a Dietitian) to ensure nutrient and energy needs are being met.

Improving cognition and mental well-being

Step 1

Try to make the daily diet healthy for both mother and child right from the start.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health have published very comprehensive guidelines for pregnant and breastfeeding women 6.

These guidelines also cover food safety issues; how to manage complications of pregnancy such as nausea, vomiting,indigestion and heartburn; weight management and also provide videos on breast-feeding technique.

Step 2

Identifying the foods that most improve brain function and mood can assist mental health postnatally and throughout life for both men and women. This will be our focus in Brain food Part 2: Thinking food next month.

If you would like a nutritional assessment to ensure that your diet is adequate during pregnancy or breastfeeding then contact us today.

Other articles written by Lea on similar topics include:

Nutrition for healthy conception

Exercise and pregnancy

The effects of early alcohol exposure on children


Obesity problems may start in the womb

Sleep deprivation affects nutritional well being


  1. Davies.JS, Lum.JAG, Skouteris.H, Byrne.LK, Hayden. MJ. Cognitive impairment during pregnancy: a meta-anlysis. Med.J.Aust 2018;208(1):35-40.
  2. Hoekzema.E, Barba-Muller.E; Pozzobon.C, Picado.M, Lucco.F, Garcia-Garcia.D, Soliva.JC, Toberia.A, Desco.M,Crone.EA, Ballesteros.A, Carmona.S, Viarroya.O. Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure Nature Neuroscience volume 20, pages 287–296 (2017)
  3. Schiller.C.E, Meltzer-Brody.S, Rubinow. DR. The role of reproductive hormones in postpartum depression. CNS Spectr. 2015 Feb; 20(1): 48–59.
  4. Prinz.P. Sleep, Appetite, and obesity- What is the Link? PLos Med.2004 Dec;1(3)
  5. Eating for healthy pregnant women. Healthy ed June 2017ā-kai-totika-mā-te-wahine-hapū 
  6. Breast feeding preparing during pregnancy. Ministry of Health NZ +videos

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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