Why is it that women experience intense cravings for (usually) unhealthy things during the cycle? Even I, a certified health coach, Nurse Practitioner, and functional medicine clinician, can’t resist the urge to splurge on cookies and ice cream when I’m on my cycle. 

Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not this explanation, provided several years ago by SNL alum, Norm McDonald, arguably the last non-politically correct comic to appear on the show and host Weekend Update. Ok, so hold tight for Norm’s joke, which was shared with me by a friend. If you’re sensitive to misogynistic jokes, skip this next paragraph!

“New medical research shows that men and women have different food cravings, men preferring meat and women preferring sweets. Scientists trace this back to caveman days, when men had to go out and hunt for food while women sat on their fat asses eating chocolates.”

Offensive? You betcha!

Oh, Norm, may your slightly psychopathic sense of humor be resting in peace. I wish Norm’s joke did provide factual clues as to why women experience cravings during the cycle. Hopefully, this article will provide a more thorough explanation than Norm’s!

The Menstrual Cycle and Hormonal Fluctuations

You don’t have to have gone to nursing school or have learned everything there is to know about hormones like I did to understand the menstrual cycle is a complex interplay of hormones, with estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuating throughout its various phases. 

As menstruation begins, estrogen levels rise, peaking just before ovulation, after which progesterone takes the lead. These hormonal shifts can influence mood, energy levels, and cause a craving for cookies and ice cream.

Physiological Changes and Nutrient Depletion

One key factor contributing to cravings during menstruation is the body’s increased demand for certain nutrients. As the body expends energy and nutrients during menstruation, there is a notable depletion of minerals. 

Let’s focus on one of those minerals: magnesium, which I’ve written about for sleep and menopause symptom relief

Magnesium plays a crucial role in muscle function and relaxation. And guess which comfort food contains a decent amount of magnesium? It turns out that Norm may have been right, of course, not about us sitting around all day on our fat asses, but at least about our enjoyment of chocolate during the cycle. 

You see, this desire might be more than just a sweet tooth calling. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, which is definitely far healthier than milk chocolate, contains significant amounts of magnesium. Research suggests that magnesium levels can decrease during menstruation, leading the body to seek out foods rich in this essential mineral. Just make sure if you’re craving chocolate to eat one that is at least 70% dark chocolate. Anything less than that is pretty much milk chocolate with too much sugar. 

I’m Not Craving Cookies, I’m Craving Serotonin!

Satisfying cravings for chocolate is one thing. But why do I also want to tear into a whole pint of ice cream with a chaser of a couple of chocolate chip cookies? Do cookies and ice cream have a mineral in it that becomes deficient during the cycle? 

Not exactly. Rather, when our mood and energy levels are all messed up thanks to hormone shifts, we crave carbs. And when you eat carbs, it stimulates the production of serotonin, the so-called feel-good hormone. Women might crave these sweet treats as a way to elevate their mood and find comfort during the emotional rollercoaster of the menstrual cycle.

In addition, serotonin plays a role in regulating appetite and satiety. If you have a a craving for foods associated with pleasure and reward, it’s a way for the body to self-regulate and find temporary satisfaction during a time of hormonal imbalance.

But let’s get back to eating more dark chocolate! Or at the very least, talking about it. You see, dark chocolate contains an amino acid called tryptophan. Best known for making people feel sleepy after eating turkey on Thanksgiving—it’s actually not the tryptophan, it’s the huge number of calories and blood-sugar spike caused by a holiday meal!—tryptophan is a building block of serotonin. Yet another reason to have a cube or two or four of dark chocolate. 

Cravings During the Cycle For Salty Snacks

We’ve explained why women experience cravings for chocolate, cookies and ice cream during the cycle. But what about cravings for pretzels, crackers, potato chips and other salty foods? Well, during the menstrual cycle, we have another thing to worry about caused by hormonal fluctuations: the body’s fluid balance. 

As estrogen levels drop, the body retains more water, leading to bloating. Craving salty foods may be a subconscious response to the body’s attempt to restore sodium balance and alleviate bloating.

Caveman-Like Cravings During the Cycle?

Sorry, Norm. It’s not just men who crave meat. Even a woman on the menstrual cycle may feel the urge to exercise her canines. It goes without saying that during menstruation, there can be a significant loss of blood in women who experience heavy flows. 

Blood loss leads to a decrease of iron stored in the body. Red meat is a rich source of heme iron, the form of iron most easily absorbed by the body. Craving red meat may be the body’s way of signaling a need for increased iron intake.

Craving Fatty, Fried Foods During the Cycle? 

Eating a small piece of red meat alongside a large portion of green veggies is one thing. Having a craving for fast food burgers is another menstrual cycle craving story. If you’re craving fast food, especially french fries what’s the reason? As mentioned, it could be the body’s way of trying to (unhealthily) regulate sodium balance. 

But there’s another driving factor: Research suggests that hormonal changes, particularly the rise in progesterone, can affect taste perception, making fatty foods more appealing. As if we need that!

When are Cravings The Most Intense During the Cycle?

It’s not always cut and dry but cravings are more likely to be intense in the days leading up to menstruation and during the early days of the period (the luteal phase). 

What causes one woman to experience no or mild cravings while others (like yours truly) have irresistible urges? Blame it on the usual cast of influencers: stress, diet, exercise levels and other overall health markers. From now on, at least until I enter full-blown menopause, I vow to stick with healthy indulgences like dark chocolate, grass-fed meat, and plain cultured dairy or and non-dairy fermented products (yogurt, tempeh, raw cheddar, kefir, kombucha).

Banish Cravings And End Unhealthy Habits

If you need help conquering cravings and hormonal imbalance, that’s what I’m here for. I’m not just any health coach, I’m a Nurse Pracitioner, certified in functional medicine. Contact me today! Don’t put off reclaiming your health any longer.