We all know that feeling in the days before our period is due, when the cravings kick in…. “Give me chocolate! Please!”. Why is it that women not only suffer through the pain and discomfort of our ritual monthly bleeding, but also get smashed down with crazy, guilt-inducing cravings for sweets and high carbohydrate foods?
It’s commonly believed that pre and peri-menstrual chocolate cravings are due to hormonal imbalances. The theory is, that it’s caused by the drop in progesterone and oestrogen, which occurs right before our period begins, that causes an increase in hunger. At the same time, our “feel-good” hormone, serotonin, takes a sudden dip, whilst our stress hormone, cortisol, spikes. This hormone rollercoaster results in the anxious little girl inside of us, breaking out and reaching for the chocolate, or whatever is filled with sugar and fat, to make us feel better. The fat and sugar content of these treats make our serotonin signals rise again, whilst simultaneously curbing our cortisol stress production: that is, for a short time until the feeling wears off and we get more cravings.
Whilst it is true that these hormone changes are occurring in our bodies at the same time we experience these terrible cravings, the question is: is it correlation or causation?
Thus far, the research has found no solid evidence that our hormone fluctuations are to blame for peri-menstrual cravings.
For example, one study set out to determine whether giving pre-menstrual doses of progesterone to women could curb cravings during this time…. But, the results found that the group with more progesterone had no significant improvements in their cravings compared to those who received the placebo. Therefore, progesterone was concluded to have no impact on the food cravings of women during our peri-menstrual cycle.
Another study compared chocolate cravings between Spanish and American women. It found that whilst the two cultures had similar occurrences of chocolate cravings, American women were far more likely to pinpoint their menstrual cycle as the time they craved chocolate, compared to Spanish women. When asked when they craved chocolate, the Spanish women most often responded with times of the day or activities, such as “after dinner” or “during study” with little mention of their monthly period.
This tells us that peri-menstrual cravings cannot be physiological if not all women, Spanish and American alike, experience it.
Since there is no solid evidence on the physiological front, researchers have turned to psychology to try to explain the phenomenon.
Some people believe that craving chocolate pre-menstrually may be cue-induced. That is, the onset of our period, psychologically cues our brain to crave comfort food. It’s thought to work like this: our period makes us sad and stressed. We eat chocolate. Chocolate tastes good and makes us feel a little better. Now we have a learned cue: getting our period equals eating chocolate equals feeling better! So, essentially we crave chocolate because we’ve taught ourselves to crave it.
It’s believed that as Westerners, we originally learn this cue from our society, which generally accepts ‘splurging’ or ‘treating’ whenever we feel down. Heck, even movies and TV shows teach us this!
Still, researchers are not overly sold on the psychological reasoning behind these cravings either, which leaves us with no real, solid answer as to why we have these cravings.
After reviewing the current research, I believe that craving chocolate before our period is a mixture of physiology, psychology and cultural conditioning. Our hormonal changes during the days leading up to our menstrual cycle leave us feeling stressed and tired, which we try to eradicate by indulging in our favourite comfort foods. This ends up creating a cycle by which we crave high fat and sugar foods when we get our period every month.
We have covered the mechanisms behind why we crave chocolate, but how can we combat these?
Let me share a few tricks that may help you keep these cravings at bay:
1. Lower your intake of refined carbs and coffee in the week or so leading up to your period
Coffee can increase your levels of our stress hormone, cortisol…. While refined carbs cause a spike in blood sugar, which then leads to a massive drop. Both of these can cause fatigue which can make us crave more sugar and caffeine to help boost our energy levels again! So, it’s best to avoid the roller coaster, and stay away from these foods from the start.
2. Increase your intake of protein and fibre before your period
Both protein and fibre help stabilise blood sugar levels and keep us feeling fuller for longer, therefore when we’re eating foods rich in these nutrients, we’re less likely to give into our cravings!
I know it may be the last thing you feel like doing, but exercising increases the secretion of serotonin, our happy hormone. Try heading out for a walk with a girlfriend or book into a regular exercise class, to boost your motivation. Personally, I love to put on some music and dance, but find something that suits you.
4. Allow yourself to indulge in some chocolate, but keep it to a minimum.
One piece of chocolate isn’t going to ruin your life forever, and if it helps you feel better, then it’s not the end of the world….but try to limit your intake to a small amount on one or two days each month….
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