If you’ve ever felt the urge to pour yourself a big glass of wine about a week after your period, there’s a perfectly logical scientific explanation: According to a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, women’s brains crave alcohol when their estrogen levels are elevated.
“When estrogen levels are higher, alcohol is much more rewarding,” Amy Lasek, Ph.D., lead study author and assistant professor of psychiatry in the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, said in a statement on the university website.
“Women may be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol or more likely to overindulge during certain stages of their cycle when estrogen levels are higher or may be more likely to seek out alcohol during those stages.”
Researchers used naturally cycling female mice going through their estrous cycles (the mouse equivalent of a menstrual cycle) as their subjects to examine the relationship between estrogen, alcohol and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the “reward center” of the brain.
Basically, when something triggers this area of the brain, neurons fire more rapidly. Lasek uses the example of chocolate because, well, who doesn’t love chocolate? When you eat chocolate, your brain knows it’s encountering something good and those neurons start going off, sending out a message that chocolate is awesome. Over time, the neurons in the VTA get more excited about the sight and even the thought of chocolate — which brings on those chocolate cravings that just won’t quit.
Researchers found the neurons in their female mice fired off more rapidly when exposed to alcohol when their estrogen levels were at their highest. This occurs around day 12 of the cycle (about a week after menstruation) and, to a lesser degree, around day 20 to 22 (about a week before menstruation). So the mice were more excited about alcohol when their female hormones were raging.
While these findings may help explain certain cravings women have during different times of the month, they also support what 2011 research found: There are gender differences in psychiatric disorders, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, likely influenced by the female sex hormone estrogen. Yes, it appears females may be more vulnerable to addiction than males.
“We already know that binge drinking can lead to lasting changes in the brain, and in women those changes may be faster and more significant due to the interaction we see between alcohol, the VTA and estrogen,” Lasek said.
“Binge drinking can increase the risk of developing alcoholism, so women need to be careful about how much alcohol they drink. They should be aware that they may sometimes inadvertently overconsume alcohol because the area of the brain involved in alcohol reward is responding very strongly.”
While this new research is a little jolting, remember that when it comes to drinking, moderation is key. Addiction is not the only issue connected with alcohol — many wines are produced with an excess of pesticides, so pick the organic option whenever possible!