What’s up with chocolate and the menstrual cycle?

What’s up with chocolate and the menstrual cycle?


No doubt you’ve heard the jokes about women craving chocolate during their premenstrual week or periods on TV, in the movies and in books.

Maybe you experience chocolate cravings on these cycle days yourself. Or maybe you know a woman (or many women) who do. I’m certainly one of them. I actually use a black magic marker to turn a certain chocolate-topped cookie I love called PIMS into my PMS cookies. Because that’s the only time I eat them.

So, with chocolate and menstrual cycles known for being tied so closely together, what do scientists think is behind the link?

To be honest, they haven’t got a clue.

And this really surprises me. Scientists can create technology that can snap photos of far-flung planets, medicine to cure a plethora of diseases and rugs that miraculously don’t stain when you spill grape juice on them. But, they can’t find enough women willing to be studied while eating chocolate during their menstrual cycle to finally figure out what’s behind this link? Baffling.

To be fair, there have been a smattering of studies already on the topic. Though none very satisfying. Here’s the rundown on what they’ve figured out–or haven’t figured out–so far:

  • Women with “more severe” premenstrual symptoms (such as anger, sadness and aches) are more likely to experience chocolate cravings than women without severe PMS, according to this study. (For the record, I do not have severe premenstrual symptoms, however, I do severely love chocolate.)
  • This study sought to find out if falling levels of progesterone or rising anxiety during the premenstrual week led to a craving for chocolate. But, after administering doses of progesterone and anti-anxiety medications to women throughout their premenstrual week, the chocolate cravings continued–ruling out both as possible culprits.
  • This researcher believes chocolate cravings go hand-in-hand with dropping levels of serotonin during the premenstrual week.
  • The results of this study suggest that chocolate cravings are a result of trying to resist our greater appetite and cravings for higher-calorie foods in general that are triggered by progesterone and falling levels of estrogen–and the resulting feelings of deprivation lead us to fall headfirst into chocolate, which then triggers guilt.
  • And this expert seems to suggest that we crave more chocolate right before and at the start of our period because it’s the time of the month we allow ourselves to indulge with less guilt.
  • Finally, chocolate cravings before and during our period may not be biologically driven at all. This study found that found 40% to 60% of American women surveyed get a hankering for chocolate on the days right before and during their period while just 4% to 24% of Spanish women do. So, it may be something we’re taught to crave as part of our culture–not something tied to our hormone cycle.
  • And this study seems to concur: It found that there was only a 13.4% drop in chocolate cravings after menopause–suggesting that chocolate cravings aren’t cycle-related.

My take on the whole chocolate thing? Personally, I believe that the euphoria-triggering brain chemicals released by chocolate (such as endorphins and phenylethylamine) combined with its unique flavor and texture lead some people who enjoy chocolate (my hand’s up–waaay up) to crave it when we need a mood boost. I think that’s because we’ve learned over time through experience that we like chocolate and it makes us feel good, so we use it medicinally, whether we realize we’re doing it or not.

I also believe that chocolate cravings in a response to a dip in mood can happen at any point in our cycle, but that our moods just happen to dip more predictably during our premenstrual week and, for some, the first couple of days of our period. As a result, we end up using this chocolate crutch more frequently during these days, which leads us to associate our premenstrual week and period with a desire for chocolate.

I think women who don’t enjoy chocolate (hey, more for me) or who prefer another mood-boosting food, for instance, salty treats, end up craving those in blue or tense moments–whether they’re in their premenstrual week, during their period or at other points in their cycle.

Now, this is quite the long and belabored preamble to the study I really wanted to report on today and that inspired this post. But, you longtime Hormonology readers know by know I can get a bit long-winded. I’d like to blame that on the week I’m on in my cycle, but it really hearkens back to when I was a fledgling writer: Back in the day, we were asked by our editors to write much longer pieces. Everything was spelled out and detailed and even annotated. Nowadays though it’s infographic this and factoid that. And, I just haven’t yet caught on to what editors call “writing short”, though I’m trying with my Hormonology Cheat Sheets. (You can imagine my frustration with sticking with just 140 characters on Twitter.) Till then, you’ll have to put up with more tl/dr rambling. Which, unbelievably, I just did while rambling about rambling.

Anyway, to the point I wanted to make: A forthcoming study in the journal Appetite reveals an easy way to experience an even greater mood-lifting effect from chocolate the next time you eat it: Consume it mindfully, meaning pay more attention to the chocolate by slowing down as you chew it, focusing on the flavor, aroma and texture and pausing longer between bites to savor what you’ve just consumed. Study participants who did just this reported feeling more positive emotions after eating chocolate than those who ate chocolate non-mindfully and, as the study control, those who ate plain crackers either mindfully or non-minfully.

Want another way to boost your chocolate enjoyment? Another study found that incorporating a ritual into your chocolate eating–for instance, breaking a chocolate bar into small pieces before eating it–makes the chocolate more flavorful. It may be because, like eating mindfully, you’re slowing yourself down so you can fully concentrate on and appreciate the flavor, aroma and texture.

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