By Genester Wilson-King, MD FACOG
Do you ever experience food cravings the week before your menstrual period, during menstruation, or at other times in the month?
Many females have food or flavor cravings. Cravings are common, especially at certain points in the menstrual cycle and during pregnancy. Let’s explore the phases of the menstrual cycle to understand the hormonal changes that occur:
Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5): This phase corresponds to menstrual blood flow. Hormone levels (estradiol and progesterone) are at their lowest during this time. Some people may experience cravings for comfort food. It is unknown whether this is due to low hormone levels or emotions triggered by menstrual blood flow.
Proliferative (Follicular) Phase (Days 6-14): Estradiol is the predominant hormone during this phase. The developing “ovum” (egg) is stimulated to maturity in preparation for ovulation by estradiol. Cravings are generally minimal for most people.
Ovulation Phase (Days 15-17): Estradiol peaks during this phase. Some individuals may experience cravings.
Secretory (Luteal) Phase (Days 18-28): Progesterone becomes the predominant hormone and prepares the uterine lining for the potential implantation of a fertilized egg. This phase is the most common time for cravings, and they can be intense. One study suggests that cravings may be more severe if there is a second spike in estradiol along with progesterone. Additionally, changes in serotonin levels due to hormonal fluctuations can impact mood (more details below).
Hormones fluctuate significantly throughout the menstrual cycle. However, the exact cause of female cravings remains elusive, especially in the two weeks before menstruation. Several studies have attempted to explore the cause of this phenomenon.
- A very small study in 2008 by Klump et al found increased binge eating episodes during the mid-luteal and menstrual phases in women with bulimia nervosa, as compared to other times of the month.
- Another study by Klump et al. in 2013 examined ovarian hormone interactions and emotional eating in 196 females. The participants kept a daily rating of emotional eating using a validated questionnaire. Saliva samples for hormone levels were taken for 45 consecutive days.
· Emotional eating scores were highest in the two weeks before menstruation when progesterone and estradiol were elevated. This is when progesterone is highest. Estradiol is also higher due to a “second spike.”
· The physiologic interplay of estradiol and progesterone throughout the menstrual cycle is not completely understood.
- In 2023, Hamidovic et al. conducted a study on 37 females with PMDD (a much more severe form of PMS) who were not taking any medications or consuming any substances. Participants took daily ratings of premenstrual food cravings and other symptoms across two to three menstrual cycles. Also, the blood levels of hormones were sampled across the menstrual cycle.
· Researchers found an inverse relationship between progesterone levels and food cravings. Higher progesterone levels were associated with fewer food cravings.
· More research is needed to learn the pathophysiology of food cravings and hormones.
The interplay of estrogen and progesterone levels can also affect:
- The release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which influences mood and appetite.
- Blood sugar levels, which potentially cause cravings for sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods.
- Emotions can lead to stress, anxiety, and mood swings. This in turn can drive up cravings for sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods.
Regular exercise can help increase endocannabinoid levels, promote relaxation, and reduce hunger. Some studies suggest that cravings may signal a need for specific nutrients like magnesium, calcium, vitamin C, or others. One example is craving chocolate, which may signal a need for magnesium.
Individual experiences vary. Not everyone has cravings. They may vary in intensity and type. Cravings are typically short-lived and resolve as hormone levels change throughout the menstrual cycle.
Some suggestions to help relieve food cravings:
- Maintain a balanced diet to ensure adequate nutrient intake. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods.
- Exercise regularly to reduce anxiety and induce pleasurable feelings (get that runners’ high!)
- Stay hydrated to help reduce cravings.
- Practice mindful eating to become more aware of hunger and fullness cues. Tune into the way each feels within you.
- Awareness enables you to manage it.
If cravings are debilitating or persistent throughout the month, consider a Hormone Assessment with a specialist. The Victory Rejuvenation Center can support you on your journey towards hormonal balance and overall wellness. Learn more below.
- Konar, H. (2016). DC Dutta’s textbook of gynecology. JP Medical Ltd.
- Klump, K. L., Keel, P. K., Culbert, K. M., & Edler, C. (2008). Ovarian hormones and binge eating: exploring associations in community samples. Psychological medicine, 38(12), 1749-1757.
- Klump, K. L., Keel, P. K., Racine, S. E., Burt, S. A., Neale, M., Sisk, C. L., … & Hu, J. Y. (2013). The interactive effects of estrogen and progesterone on changes in emotional eating across the menstrual cycle. Journal of abnormal psychology, 122(1), 131.
- Hamidovic, A., Soumare, F., Naveed, A., & Davis, J. (2023). Mid-Luteal Progesterone Is Inversely Associated with Premenstrual Food Cravings. Nutrients, 15(5), 1097.
- Parker, G., & Crawford, J. (2007). Chocolate craving when depressed: a personality marker. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 191(4), 351-352.
- Drewnowski, A., & Almiron-Roig, E. (2009). 11 Human perceptions and preferences for fat-rich foods. Fat detection: Taste, texture, and post ingestive effects, 23, 265.
- Ryan, S., Ussher, J. M., & Hawkey, A. (2021). Managing the premenstrual body: a body mapping study of women’s negotiation of premenstrual food cravings and exercise. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9, 1-14.