It’s well known that when you have your period you may reach for the ice cream or chocolate. For smokers, that list of cravings might also include cigarettes. A new study out in Biology of Sex Differences says that at certain times of the month, it may be harder for your brain to control cigarette cravings or kick the habit if you are trying to quit.
The researchers used resting-state functional MRI scans to examine regions of the brain that correspond with behavior control and reward systems while a group of 38 women smokers were shown images related to cravings, such as a pack of cigarettes or control images, like a deck of cards.
Among all the women in the study, half were in the follicular or pre-ovulatory stage, the part of the menstrual cycle that occurs at the beginning of menstruation and lasts until ovulation, and the other half were in the pre-menstrual or luteal phase. Those that were in the follicular stage were found to have higher responses to smoking imagery and weaker blood flow to behavior control centers compared to the remaining women who were in the luteal phase and had average levels–meaning that women in the luteal phase were using the behavior control areas of the brain more than those in the follicular phase.
The scientists from the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Addiction hypothesize that this could be due to fluctuating hormone levels in the body. During pre-ovulatory stages, progesterone is low in the body. Preliminary animal studies have shown that progesterone may play a part in reducing cravings and controlling behavior.
But the researchers admit that there are limitations to this study. The sample size is small, and the researchers call for longer, longitudinal studies on smoking women. The researchers also note that the menstrual phase for study participants was self-reported, and hormone levels were not tested. As many women do not experience a textbook menstrual cycle, this would have to be tested to know for sure what phase they were in.
This may just be the start of research in this arena, as other studies have shown that smoking cessation is harder for women and, more often than not, women have more severe health effects from smoking.