Finding a way to quit smoking that works for you can be a long road. One factor we might be overlooking that could make it easier is our timing: New research examines how the phases of our menstrual cycles affect our cravings for cigarettes.
In a small pilot study, published recently in the Psychiatry Journal, 34 smokers (19 women and 15 men) went through fMRI brain scanning. While getting their scans, participants looked at smoking-related images (such as someone holding a cigarette) that have previously been shown to make smokers crave cigarettes. Men were tested once, and women were tested at two different points in their menstrual cycles.
The results showed no differences between men and women's brain activity overall, but the female participants did show a few significant differences between the two menstrual-phase tests: In response to the smoking cues, activation in addiction-related brain areas such as the insula and the angular gyrus (an area of the brain related to semantic language processing), was higher during the follicular phase of menstruation than in the luteal phase. In contrast, activation was lower in the hippocampus (a brain area often associated with learning and memory) during the luteal phase, compared to the follicular phase.
Taken together, this pattern of activation suggests that the way we crave cigarettes changes over the course of a menstrual cycle — kind of like the way our cravings for other things might skyrocket during specific times of the month. Therefore, the investigators suggest that quitting at a certain point in our menstrual cycle could reduce the chance of relapsing — because we could purposefully quit at the point when our cravings are the easiest to work through.
This — and evidence suggesting women have a harder time quitting smoking than men — leads the study authors to call for gender-specific smoking cessation programs. However, with such a small sample size, it's probably a little too early to make any grand conclusions. To complicate matters further, the researchers didn't find any significant correlation between participants' hormone levels and cigarette cravings, suggesting that social or cultural factors could be playing a role here. But, during this season of resolutions, we welcome anything that might make quitting a little simpler.