A new pilot, or test study, on gender differences in nicotine cravings among people with schizophrenia, shows that a woman’s menstrual cycle may be the key to helping her quit smoking and beat other addictions.
“We expected to perhaps see some gender differences, but we found differences in the menstrual phase cycle among women in the group,” said lead study author Adrianna Mendrek, Ph.D., of the department of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and the Research Centre at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal.
“It wasn’t really designed as a smoking cessation study. We happened upon these results,” said Mendrek. Women tend to crave cigarettes more than men, and they have a harder time quitting.
The study of 34 smokers, which included 15 men and 19 women, found that the women’s cravings for nicotine seemed to be influenced by hormonal changes across their menstrual cycle.
Participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain. During the scan, researchers showed them images that were either neutral or designed to stimulate cravings.
Does Ovulation Increase Nicotine Cravings?
The most significant brain activity related to cravings and emotion occurred in women during the follicular phase, or the time when ovulation occurs. In comparison, limited brain activity related to cravings occurred during the luteal phase, or when ovulation ends but before menstruation begins.
“Hormone fluctuations are notoriously variable among women, and we can’t exclude emotional factors or beliefs either,” Mendrek said.
While these results show that it might be easier for women to quit smoking during the mid luteal phase, “the psychosocial factors when it comes to human beings and quitting smoking are essential. I wouldn’t tell anybody wait until your mid luteal phase to quit smoking,” said Mendrek.
Mendrek wanted to bring attention to the fact that there are hormonal and psychosocial differences between men and women in terms of drug addiction. Traditionally, addiction and drug abuse have been seen as more of a male problem, and most studies have been done on men.
It seems to be much easier for women to get addicted and much harder for women to quit, according to Mendrek. For example, more men than women abuse cocaine, but more women are dependent on the drug, she said.
Should We Treat Based on Gender?
Women see different side effects than men when they take drugs, so there is a need for different treatment strategies based on gender.
“I would hope that this little tiny study, which is really preliminary, will draw more attention to the fact that we need to study women when it comes to mental health. They should be included and we should note that there might be some important differences, like the hormonal differences, that also interact with drugs they are given,” said Mendrek.
Mendrek said that larger studies are needed before the results can be linked to guidelines for quitting smoking.
“The best time to quit is when things are mostly calm in your life, and you’re not feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed,” said Mendrek.