Saturday, January 28, 2006

Apple #144: Monthly Chocolate Cravings

As with the synchronized menstruation entry, this Apple might make some of you menfolk a bit uncomfortable. But I was very curious about this, and I had to pass along what I learned to my fellow womenfolk out there.

I wanted to know, why do I get overwhelming cravings for chocolate during my period? (I'm currently addicted to peanut butter Twix). Or, another way to ask the question, what is my body lacking that makes it demand I give it chocolate?

My first entry was on chocolate, but with this question, I'm heading into deeper waters. Or deeper pools of chocolate.

  • As usually happens when I ask a "why" question of science, particularly medicine, I find many people who say they don't know why. They know that it happens, but they don't know the reason. Big help.
  • Other people have hazarded some guesses about why women crave chocolate during their periods. One doctor suggests that cravings for sugar, particularly if they're combined with feelings of low energy (I also usually have to sleep a lot more than otherwise), often signal low blood sugar levels.
    • This particular doctor suggests that, instead of eating a lot of chocolate, try brushing your teeth instead -- that sounds really effective -- or having something less caloric like an apple. If you must have chocolate, eat a low-carb chocolate bar.
  • Another website suggests that the following progression may be a likely explanation:
    • Before menstruation, your body has more progesterone than at other times. Progesterone tells your body to store more fat, which allows less of it to be converted into energy.
    • Since your body has less stuff available to turn into energy, it demands you give it more food.
    • And since your body thinks it has less fat available to turn into energy, it tells you to give it high-fat foods.
    • Thus, you may want things like potato chips and french fries to go along with your chocolate bar.
  • Another website points out that chocolate is actually a psychoactive food. That means that it contains chemicals that could get you stoned. You'd probably have to eat several pounds of chocolate to notice the same effects as you would from other, more widely known substances. Nonetheless, the heady stuff is in there, including:
    • Anandamide -- Like THC in marijuana, this chemical activates receptors in your brain that make you feel high. It doesn't stick around in your system for very long, though.
    • Caffeine -- Chocolate has relatively low levels of caffeine, compared to other substances like coffee or black tea. But caffeine is in there, and it acts as a stimulant. It's not a good idea to have too much caffeine during your period, by the way, since it acts to siphon water away from your system, and you need more water during your period. For this reason, caffeine can make your cramps worse.
    • Theobromine -- Similar to caffeine, except in addition to being a mild stimulant, theobromine also relaxes smooth tissue, especially the tissue in your lungs. Studies suggest this may be more effective than codeine in controlling coughs. It also dilates blood vessels (see Migraines).
    • Tryptophan -- An essential amino acid, also present in high quantities in turkey, and is the reason people feel really sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner. Diminishes anxiety.
    • Magnesium -- Lots of foods have magnesium, of course, but chocolate has relatively high levels of this mineral. Since the progresterone progression may be at work in your body, and your body may be telling you to give it more fatty foods, it may also be telling you it needs more magnesium, since magnesium helps your body extract energy from food.
    • Tetrahydro-beta-carbolines -- These are alkaloids that people don't know a whole lot about, except that they're present in other addictive things like beer, wine, and liquor. People think they may play a major role in triggering and maintaining addictions.
    • Phenylethylamine -- This is similar to amphetamine, except its action is to release dopamine in the pleasure-centers of your brain. You get loads of it at the peak of orgasm. In chocolate, this substance is nearly all metabolized before it gets to your brain, so it's not like you can eat chocolate and dissolve yourself all over the place. But it is possible that some of it may affect the chemical balance in your brain and give you a bit of the euphoria.
    • Endorphins -- Chocolate doesn't contain endorphins, but as with most sweet foods, chocolate triggers the release of endorphins, which can reduce your sensitivity to pain, and it may "contribute to the warm inner glow" that chocoholics often describe.

  • Taken together, it sounds like chocolate may be a kind of miracle cocktail for your body and your brain chemistry, at a time when your body is trying to deal with hormones in a different balance, high-level and maybe immediate energy needs, the need to reduce pain from cramps and water retention, and overall anxiety caused by all this upheaval in your system.
  • To those websites I've seen that suggest you should try to resist your chocolate cravings during your period, I say, screw that. Sounds to me like there are at least 8 reasons why my body wants chocolate and it's not likely I'm going to find all of those 8 things in any other substance.
  • Chocolate, here I come! In moderation, of course.

Sources, Chocolate: the Psychoactive Cocktail
Jon Marino, "Prescription-strength chocolate,"
Science News, February 10, 2004
"Persistent coughs melt away with chocolate,"
New Scientist, November 22, 2004, "Chemistry of Theobromine: Chocolate's Caffeine Relative."
Environmed Research's Alpha Nutrition, Calcium & Magnesium: Essential Knowledge in Nutrition
Go Ask Alice! Chocolate cravings and PMS, March 29, 1996 (this is one of the people who say try not to eat chocolate), iHealth, Cravings during my period, by Dr. Sarah Brewer (suggests you brush your teeth rather than eat chocolate)

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