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Life Kit: How to deal with life's changes while pregnant

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

When I was pregnant, it was impossible to ignore how much hormones change in those long nine months. They're responsible for everything from physical symptoms like fatigue and nausea to emotional ones. But what about the hormonal impact on the brain? As it turns out, it is bigger than you might expect. Life Kit's Andee Tagle has more.

ANDEE TAGLE, BYLINE: The list of hormonal changes during pregnancy is a long one. Estrogen goes up. Progesterone goes up.

CHELSEA CONABOY: We have changes to our cortisol systems and our prolactin systems and oxytocin. And we talk a lot about what those things mean for the body.

TAGLE: But we seldom talk about what they mean for the brain, says Chelsea Conaboy, a health and science journalist and author of the book "Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting The Story of Parenthood." When we do talk about them, there are a few stereotypical images that probably come to mind. Maybe the idea of baby blues or perhaps the idea of mommy brain. Conaboy says forgetfulness during pregnancy is a real thing.

CONABOY: But it is like one piece of a much bigger picture and a picture that's really, like, powerful. This is not a neurodegenerative stage of life, but, you know, this is an adaptive one.

TAGLE: Too often, says Conaboy, we're quick to be irritated by these hormonal changes or wave them away as frivolous or fleeting.

CONABOY: And the reality is that pregnancy marks the beginning of a very distinct developmental stage of life that shapes our physical and our mental health for the long term.

TAGLE: It's a process called matrescence, and it's a hormonal shift comparable in scope and scale to adolescence. Remember those oh so turbulent teen years? Yeah. Think that big and world-altering. So if you ever find yourself wondering when, will I get back to the old me...

CONABOY: The truth is, like, it never returns to normal. We are changed by this process and are changed for life.

TAGLE: But that doesn't have to be a bad thing because what hormones actually do during pregnancy is nothing short of re-molding the brain for parenthood.

CONABOY: They are really priming the brain to be more plastic, more malleable, more changeable, and to be ready, essentially, to receive our babies.

TAGLE: In fact, one study showed that parenting appears to be a neuroprotective experience over time, meaning it seems to slow the effects of brain aging.

CONABOY: It makes sense. We tell, like, older people to stay active, to stay social, to do crossword puzzles. And parenting is sort of like the biggest crossword puzzle you can imagine.

TAGLE: And what's more, research suggests that the parental brain is better primed for empathy than non-parents.

CONABOY: So our ability to actually read and respond to another person's mental state is essentially strengthened. And we also develop a greater capacity to regulate our own emotions in the process.

TAGLE: Of course, that much change and adaptability doesn't always come easy. So the next time you find your keys in the freezer or feel the need to have a great big cry right in the middle of your workday, try to give yourself a break. Take it day by day. And remember, change can be hard but also good.

CONABOY: The person you are is changing in, like, a very fundamental way, right? No, you're not compromised by it. Like, you're growing into a new way of being, a new stage of yourself.

TAGLE: For NPR's Life Kit, I'm Andee Tagle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andee Tagle
Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.