For nearly as long as I’ve been writing about hormonal effects on health and behavior in women I’ve been covering research about the optimal time in a woman’s cycle to quit cigarettes. This must be a topic of particular interest to researchers (and the pharmaceutical companies who help fund their studies) because it seems like every year there’s a new study to add to the pile–and it often contradicts the findings of the research team that came before it.
Well, grab your popcorn because there’s yet more research about the best time in a woman’s cycle to quit cigarettes. This new study is published in the Biology of Sex Differences and is funded in part by Pfizer, the maker of the smoking cessation drug Chantix. And, it says that the best time for a woman to quit cigarettes is during the second half of her monthly cycle–her Week 3 and Week 4.
Here’s my problem–well, problems–with this study:
First off, it was undeniably small. Just 38 women participated. But, okay, let’s cast that aside right now because I’ve reported on studies with even smaller sample sizes that had important information to share.
The bigger problem is that the researchers didn’t ask these women to quit smoking, then monitor their quitting success over the course of several–or even one–menstrual cycle. Their study involved using brain scans to find out how certain areas of the women’s brains responded to smoking cues, such as looking at a picture of a pack of cigarettes, based on where the women were in their monthly cycles.
What they found: Rising estrogen in the first half of a woman’s cycle intensifies reward sensations in response to smoking cues and progesterone in the second half of a woman’s cycle reduces them. The researchers take this to mean that women are more susceptible to lighting up in the first half of their cycle–so they should quit during the second half.
However, they didn’t test this theory out on any women. And, funny enough, in their own study, the female volunteers who were in the first half of their cycle reported smoking fewer cigarettes than the women in the second half of their cycle–which appears to undermine their assertion that women who want to quit should aim for the second half of their cycle to do so because they’ll be less likely to light up.
The idea that rising estrogen can intensify reward sensations in the brain isn’t exactly novel. Research like this study from 2007 already shows this. This new study may go into more detail about exactly which brain regions get activated and specifically in response to smoking cues, but it’s really just building off of information we already knew: High estrogen=more rewarding sensations. Check.
Here’s the thing: I may be a health-conscious women’s health journalist now, but way, way, way back in college (seriously, we didn’t have the Internet or even computers back then), I used to smoke cigarettes before I wised up–so I know personally that it takes more than just smoking cues to thwart an attempt to quit. Withdrawal symptoms, mood and fear of gaining weight all play important roles.
And that’s probably why this 2006 analysis of 13 studies examining withdrawal symptoms and cravings in female smokers and quitters throughout the menstrual cycle (that was not funded by a pharmaceutical company) found that even though these studies had mixed findings, those that did pinpoint a link between menstrual phases and quitting smoking predominantly showed that cravings and withdrawal symptoms (including irritability, restlessness and increased appetite) worsened during the first few days of menstruation and during the second half of their cycle–suggesting that the days right after the start of your period is the optimal time in your menstrual cycle to quit.
This new study won’t be the last word on the topic of the best cycle days to quit smoking–and there’s no doubt in my mind that new research will contradict this study. Then another study will contradict that one.
But, personally, I think that if you’re going to suggest the best time in a woman’s cycle to quit smoking, women would be better served by a study with a large sample size that varies in ethnicity and age and examines the actual behavior, cravings and withdrawal experience of female smokers who are trying to quit across their entire menstrual cycle–optimally for at least three cycles–and not have any pharmaceutical companies who sell smoking cessation drugs and can profit off a fresh press release involved in the funding.
My advice? If you want to quit, talk to your doctor, join an online or in-person support group and change the habits that you link with smoking. Then pick a quit date and do it, keeping in mind that if you’re in the first half of your monthly cycle after your period starts to peter out, you’ll probably experience fewer withdrawal symptoms and a better mood, which can help keep you from lighting up. However, you may also be more susceptible to smoking cues, such as seeing someone else smoking, so you’ll want to look away when that happens. And, if you quit during the start of you period or the second half of your cycle, keep in mind that you could experience more withdrawal symptoms, so you may want to plan ways to boost your mood and deal with stress and edginess, and have healthy low-calorie snacks on hand (such as low-fat granola bars and yogurt) to deal with any food cravings.
But, above all, don’t give up on kicking the habit even if you falter and have to restart. Your health is worth it.