Although more men smoke than women, female smokers tend to have a harder time quitting compared to men. A recent study conducted at the University of Montreal has found that a woman’s menstrual cycle plays a significant role in nicotine cravings. Women should find it easier to overcome nicotine withdrawal symptoms after ovulation when their estrogen and progesterone levels are elevated.

"Our data reveal that incontrollable urges to smoke are stronger at the beginning of the follicular phase that begins after menstruation," Adrianna Mendrek from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal, said in a statement. "Hormonal decreases of estrogen and progesterone possibly deepen the withdrawal syndrome and increase activity of neural circuits associated with craving. Taking the menstrual cycle into consideration could help women to stop smoking."

Mandrek and her colleagues recruited 15 men and 19 women who smoked more than 15 cigarettes a day at the beginning of the study. Each participant was asked to complete a questionnaire and underwent MRI brain scans while viewing either neutral pictures or pictures meant to arouse their desire to smoke. Female participants underwent two sets of brain scans, including once at the beginning of the follicular phase of their menstrual cycle and a second just after ovulation. Women also had their estrogen and progesterone levels measured.

Researchers set out to determine any gender differences in the neuronal circuits linked to nicotine craving and if electrocortical changes linked to nicotine withdrawal fluctuate during hormonal changes. While they found no significant difference between men and women when it came to neuronal circuits, activation patterns in the brains of females were different over the course of their menstrual cycle. Activation in the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex was greater during the follicular phase and was limited in the hippocampus after ovulation.

"Stress, anxiety, and depression are probably the more important factors to take into consideration. Having said that, amongst young people, tobacco use by women is unfortunately increasing," Mandrek added. "A greater knowledge of the neurobiological mechanisms governing addiction should enable us to better target treatment according to the smoker’s profile."

Researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine recently discovered why women have a harder time quitting compared to men. After examining the brains of both men and women from seven to nine days of nicotine abstinence, the research team found that women’s brains respond differently to nicotine. The number of nicotine receptors in the brain tend to increase when a person smokes, which was true for men in the study. However, female smokers in the study had the same amount of nicotine receptors as female nonsmokers.

Source: Potvin S, Bourque J, Dinh-Williams L, Mendrek A. Sex Differences and Menstrual Cycle Phase-Dependent Modulation of Craving for Cigarette: An fMRI Pilot Study. Psychiatry Journal. 2014.