Dangle a bagel in front of me during my period and I’ll claw it out of your hands faster than a mother bear jumping a tourist who’s too close to her baby. The impulse is real, you guys, and whether your vice is a mouthful of perfectly fluffy carbs or a carton of cigarettes, that time of the month is a nightmare for impulse control even for a typically health-conscious woman.
Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that a group of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found a link between a woman’s ability to quit smoking and the stage of her menstrual cycle.
While the study focused on women addicted to cigarettes, the researchers say the findings could extend to other compulsive behaviors—meaning that our periods may be even more powerful than we originally thought.
The study tested 38 premenopausal female smokers between the ages of 21 and 51 who were physically healthy.
“Cigarette smoking continues to be the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.; however differences between the sexes exist in tobacco-related morbidity and mortality,” the study’s senior author, Teresa Franklin, a research associate professor of neuroscience in psychiatry, told me in an email.
According to the researchers, cigarette smoking has more serious long-term effects on women than men, including increased incidence of lung cancer-related deaths, increased risk for heart attacks and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and increased health risks for children both during pregnancy and after birth. It’s for this reason that the study’s lead author, Reagan Wetherill, a research assistant professor of psychology, and Franklin have spent several years studying women’s brains in the hope that their research will lead to a better understanding of how to help women kick their deadly habit.
The team’s research builds on past studies that have shown a connection between the level of the hormone progesterone in a woman’s body and her cravings for addictive substances, like nicotine. They studied the women during both the follicular phase—which starts on the first day of menstruation—and luteal phase—which lasts from ovulation through the end of a woman’s cycle. They were looking specifically for the women’s reactions to “cues”—or how they’d respond to temptation in situations like lunch breaks or social settings when they’d usually smoke.
The short version? If you’re trying to ditch your nasty nicotine habit, the best time to try is in the late follicular phase—a couple of weeks before Aunt Flo sets down her bags and makes your life hell. That's when progesterone is at its lowest concentration and the female sex hormone estradiol is at its highest concentration.
While Franklin and co.’s studies focused on nicotine addiction, there’s reason to believe that the collective wisdom gleaned from the study could soon be extended to other addictions, like alcohol or overeating. “We believe that the hormonal influence over cognitive control of the reward system would apply to decision-making in general, however that remains untested at this time,” she said.
And Franklin warns that it’s too soon to say whether or not you should take these findings as the gospel. “These data are intriguing and could potentially aid women in quitting. The caveat is the preliminary nature of the findings.”
Robyn Srigley, a “PMS coach” and holistic nutritionist who calls herself The Hormone Diva, isn’t surprised by the studies findings. After closely observing the menstrual cycles of many women throughout her career, she knows better than most about how much the balance of our hormones impact us.
In an explanation that seems to marry science and your favorite horoscope, Srigley broke down the ways women’s moods typically vary over the course of a cycle:
Generally when on their period, women tend to feel more introspective and will think more about changes/decisions rather than starting them. In the follicular and ovulatory phases, hormones like estrogen and testosterone are on the rise and so is the women's capability to think expansively and creatively—generally I find women to be much more motivated at this time, ready to take more on in her life and is more steadfast in her reasoning—less likely to 'cheat' or justify her decisions to others at this time. After ovulation, I find women's mental and physical energy start draining as many hormones (except progesterone) have declined. She may be more irritable and less clear headed at this time, especially if hormones are out of balance. Extra anxiety may show it's head here as well thus making her worry more about potential decisions/changes and feel like she just can't deal with it right now.
But Srigley is also careful not to trump up the new study’s findings too much: She, like the study’s authors, recognize the small sample size. “I wouldn't doubt at all that there is some type of connection [between the menstrual cycle and ability to fight addiction],” she said. “That being said, addiction is very complicated. Things like neurotransmitter deficiencies, adrenal insufficiency, insulin problems and nutrient deficiencies all play a role, in my experience.”
She also pointed out that while the study’s findings may be true when a woman’s hormones are in balance, that is not always the case. But she concedes that when estrogen is higher in the first half of the cycle—the follicular phase—women tend to be more social, and as mentioned earlier, social settings can be smoking cues. “Perhaps this plays a role,” she said.
Franklin is already looking toward the next phase of research and applying for funding for further clinical studies. While those studies might not come to fruition four or five years from now, she believe the latest findings can be applied right now. “If I were a woman who wanted to quit smoking, I might try something as painless and easy as timing my quit date to coincide with a time of the menstrual cycle that is associated with lower responses to nicotine, lower craving and lower brain responses to smoking-related reminders.”
But beyond further studies on the subject, Franklin has an even larger goal in mind. “I actually want to write a book someday on how the menstrual cycle and its associated fluctuations in hormones influence life on earth as we know it. Everyone is affected by a woman's hormonal shifts, Especially men,” she wrote, adding an ominous “Ha, ha.”
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.