Sure hormones are behind your monthly chocolate cravings? Not so fast….

My Hormonology

Sure hormones are behind your monthly chocolate cravings? Not so fast….

chocolate2This weekend, I happened to somehow, accidentally, without reeeallllyyy meaning to, end up at one of my favorite chocolate shops downtown.

Not too coincidentally, I’m in my premenstrual Week 4.

I left the candy shop with a bundle of dark chocolate-covered pretzels, graham crackers, potato chips and orange peels. Basically, if it was covered in dark chocolate, I was taking it home.

Now, I know I’m not the only woman who experiences a sharp rise in cravings for chocolate right before and at the start of my period. Numerous studies (such as this, this and this) suggest nearly half of women get cravings around this time in our cycle. (Though I suspect there are lots more who simply wouldn’t admit to chocolate cravings during these studies without being promised a reward of chocolate in return for their truthfulness. I know I’d be one of those chocolate-ransoming hold-outs!)

Anyway, I got a little curious about this chocolate-craving phenomenon:

Are we somehow being pushed by our hormones toward chocolate? Or is something else at work here?

So, I went through the research and–surprising as it seems–it’s not hormones pushing us face-first into a bag full of delicious chocolate treats. At least not directly.

To find this out, researchers examined a variety of factors affecting chocolate cravings:

In a small 1999 study, they looked at what happened when they gave women progesterone in their premenstrual week to make up for plummeting levels of this hormone, which they theorized might trigger chocolate cravings. The extra progesterone didn’t stop their chocolate desires, which nixed that hormone theory.

Interestingly, in the same study, they gave women the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam (Xanax) thinking maybe premenstrual tension caused by plunging estrogen was triggering the chocolate cravings. Guess what? The mellowed-out premenstrual ladies still sunk their teeth into their favorite chocolate treats. So, that wasn’t it, either.

In a 2003 study and 2004 study, researchers compared premenstrual chocolate cravings across different cultures–the United States, Egypt and Spain. This is when they hit on something: Women who lived in the country where chocolate is more commonly eaten as candy (the U.S.) experienced significantly higher monthly chocolate cravings than those who lived in the other countries where it’s less commonly consumed. And in 2008, a study found that Japanese women had higher cravings for rice and sushi. All this suggests that cultural norms are at least partly behind the rise in cyclical chocolate yearnings.

Then, in an intriguing 2009 study, researchers examined what happens to women’s chocolate cravings after they’ve gone through menopause. Their theory was that chocolate cravings would drop significantly since a woman’s post-menopausal hormones wouldn’t be cycling up and down in a monthly pattern. What the researchers discovered, however, was that chocolate cravings were reduced by only a small amount, suggesting more was at work than hormonal fluctuations.

So, if hormones aren’t directly the cause of chocolate cravings that hit at the same time every month right before and during your period, than what is?

It’s most likely a combination of factors:

> Social norms: We touched on this in the studies mentioned above. This is where eating chocolate–especially around our period–is considered normal and commonplace in our culture. Since we see other women doing it, it plants the idea in our heads (and mouths and bellies) that chocolate is a good thing for us to eat perimenstrually, too.

> Chocolate’s mood-enhancing effects: Researchers point out that chocolate is rich in compounds that affect feel-good brain chemicals, giving us a euphoric buzz. And what we may really be craving is this quick and easy mood lift to counteract low estrogen dragging down levels of these feel-good brain chemicals, triggering premenstrual sadness or irritability. In a way, it’s like reintroducing a substance to your body that you’re addicted to and have suddenly been cut off from. (For instance, ever try to quick coffee cold turkey? Yikes!) So, chocolate may help replenish those lost addictive substances–those happiness-elevating brain chemicals we love so much.

> We consume more calories perimenstrually: Research shows that rising estrogen in the first half of our cycle has a slight appetite-suppressing effect. In fact, we eat less during ovulation–when estrogen is peaking–than during any other time in our cycle. So, it may be that we splurge on chocolate during our premenstrual week and the first few days of our period when estrogen is low simply because that’s when we’re eating more calories overall.

> Chocolate is just plain delicious: The creaminess and rich aroma and sweet taste simply appeal to our senses. So, we may crave chocolate at a time in our cycle when we feel like treating ourselves to something delicious as a reward for putting up with low-estrogen moodiness, fatigue, aches and brain fog.

I hope this helps explain a little about why you or someone you know gets chocolate cravings around your period.

Fun fact: I’ve been sipping dark cocoa the entire time I was writing this Hormonology Tip. (As if I could stop myself!)

And, if I haven’t just triggered a chocolate craving in at least a few of you perimenstrual readers, I will be reeeaaalllly surprised.

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