Hi ladies, and welcome to Part 1 of the highly requested women’s health series!
As a female community, it’s really important we understand the intricacies of women’s physiology well, respect the quirks and use them to our advantage. We MUST be able to learn and talk about those perfectly natural things openly, with no shame of embarrassment. I couldn’t be more excited to chat about some of those super-important things with you, so let’s get right into our first hot topic…
From caramel-filled eggs to enormous servings of fries, many women swear they suddenly start craving certain types of foods around the time Aunt Flo is due for a visit. But do the reasons behind those seemingly common experiences hold up to modern science? Let’s investigate!
Periods 101: The almighty menstrual cycle
Before we dive into some serious science, let’s do a quick recap on why menstruations occur in the first place.
Fun fact: did you know that beyond primates, the only known animals that menstruate are bats and the elephant shrew (if you’re wondering what the heck this is, see the picture below for some ultimate cuteness)? Other placental mammals do go through cycles, but the ‘menstruation’ as we know it doesn’t happen, as all that stuff simply gets absorbed by the body. Wouldn’t that be nice? A girl can dream (and in fact, there are a few theories as to why having an actual menstruation is an evolutionary advantage).
Feeling a bit more special about your monthly gory adventure? So you should, as the menstrual cycle is incredibly complex, requiring input from many different glands and the hormones these glands produce. In other words, it’s a fascinating biofeedback system, starting in the brain and resulting in the ovaries producing the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
There are four phases of the menstrual cycle:
- Menstruation – the least favourite phase of many, the menstruation involves removing the thickened lining of the uterus (endometrium) through the vagina. Although it seems like a lot of blood, most women actually lose under 80 ml of it during the entire period, which typically flows (pun intended) for 3-7 days.
- The follicular phase starts on the first day of the menstruation and finishes when you ovulate. During this phase, the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) prompts the ovaries to produce about 5-20 tiny follicles, each containing an immature egg. Only one egg matures and makes it to the next phase, which is...
- Ovulation - the release of a mature egg from the surface of the ovary. Some of the hormones involved in this stage include luteinising hormone (LH) and FSH. The high levels of LH trigger the egg to travel towards the uterus – and it has to be fertilised within the next 24 hours (otherwise you get a menstruation).
- The luteal phase follows the ovulation, where the now-transformed follicle which doesn’t have an egg inside anymore starts releasing progesterone, along with small amounts of oestrogen. This combination causes the lining of the uterus to thicken, therefore getting ready for implantation, just in case. Without a pregnancy, the follicular structure dies, and as progesterone is no longer released, the lining of the uterus sheds away. This is known as menstruation – and the cycle is now complete!
Note that certain forms of birth control significantly alter these events, but this is a whole another topic for a different day!
So, what about those food cravings? We’re almost there!
Hormones, the menstrual cycle and food cravings
Whilst the anecdotal evidence is certainly there, research isn’t very clear on the topic of period cravings. Sure, some studies do report increased intake in the luteal phase compared to other menstrual cycle stages – and there are some theoretical grounds to support that. Most theories revolve around fluctuations in female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. Potentially, the combination of low estrogen and high progesterone may contribute to increased food cravings – and a similar link has been noted between binge eating during the luteal phase.
However, most studies on the topic have major limitations, such as extrapolating findings from animal studies or using diverse samples of females without adjusting for health conditions, backgrounds and presence of eating disorders.
This is not to say no quality evidence exists – and one study in particular has done a great job on testing some of the theories!
The surprising discovery
The study mentioned above, extensively studied the attitudes around cravings in a sample of 35 young women, who visited the laboratory in the late follicular and late luteal phases of their cycles to account for changes in hormones.
Their food intake was matched, they were of similar age and health, and were required to answer a number of questionnaires and even resist the temptation of chocolate (the number one reported period craving) during a series of cleverly designed tests. Without going into too much detail, the investigation has eliminated much of the limitations of previous research, and the findings were quite surprising:
- No difference in food cravings were observed between the menstrual cycle phases;
- When asked about desired meals and foods, in both cycle stages the participants opted for similar foods and macronutrients (there was a teeny trend towards high-carb, high-fat foods though); and
- The ladies haven’t even eaten more chocolate during the luteal phase, despite being offered unlimited supply of their faves!
So, the question is…
Are period cravings all in your head?
As mentioned above, the research in the area is quite shaky, and more evidence is required to draw definitive conclusions. In addition, there are other cycle-related changes, such as the drop in serotonin levels happening before the menstruation, that can further contribute to low mood and reaching for comfort foods as a result.
However, it’s worth considering whether you’re truly experiencing intense cravings, or do you just (consciously or not) use your PMS as an excuse, since period cravings are such a prevalent socially acceptable concept.
Take home message
Whether your cravings are hormone-triggered or not, it’s worth trying simple strategies that we have covered before!
And now that you know that the existence of period cravings isn’t as obvious as often assumed, it may be a little bit easier to listen to your body and either manage the cravings or own them. It’s much healthier to have that cookie because you WANT it, than because your sanity is apparently overridden by your brain! Treat yo’self…responsibly.