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Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.

Hungry? It's Your Hormones!

Is there such a thing as "hormonal" hunger? Find out.

Have you ever blamed (or had a significant other blame) your “hormones” (i.e., PMS) for uncontrollable food cravings? True confession: I have. Numerous times. But do I have a valid excuse or is it all psychological? The answer is: both.

Hormonal fluctuations associated with the menstrual cycle may influence both appetite and eating behavior. It seems a woman needs more energy in the time between ovulation and the first day of her period. There is some evidence that carbohydrate cravings are common as carbs get converted directly to blood glucose, which supplies energy to the body. There is also some evidence that women crave more lean protein during this time as well.

That being said, many women crave more food—in particular foods high in fat and carbohydrates—than they actually need during this time. Part of this might be because their “feel good” hormone (serotonin) levels also fall post-ovulation, making women feel depressed. Eating carbohydrates helps raise serotonin levels, and thus, these cravings may be due to a biological urge to self-medicate the feelings of depression. Bottom line: while I might crave tons of chocolate after ovulation, the actual increase in energy expenditure, and decrease in serotonin, during this time is likely not great enough to warrant the three desserts I just ate.

While we’re talking about hormones, when we blame our “hormones” for our food cravings, we shouldn’t discount another critical hormone: cortisol. Cortisol is produced when we’re stressed, and it’s been blamed for everything from heart attacks to belly fat. But before we knock it, we need to understand how and why it works.

When we encounter a potential stressor, our bodies kick into overdrive. Cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream to meet the threat or danger; blood is rerouted to our arms and legs so we can fight or flee. It's a fabulous system that works well when we’re actually in danger (e.g., scary-looking guy in a dark alley).

Here's the problem. Your body doesn't know the difference between the scary-looking guy and the fact that you are running late for an important meeting at work. A stressor is a stressor, and while all that adrenaline is an asset when running for your life, you can't fight or flee from being late to work—well you can, but it probably won’t help.

So if it’s such a good hormone, why the bad rap? Because it causes food cravings. It works like this: your body is getting ready to fight or flee, so it thinks it needs oodles of extra calories to do all that fighting and fleeing. Thus, you crave anything and everything, especially fast-acting carbs in the form of sugar. This is one of the main causes of food cravings and emotional eating these days: we are a stressed-out bunch of people!

So what are you supposed to do instead? Two things:

1) Decide not to be stressed out. That’s right—notice I said decide, as in you get to decide whether something is a big deal or not. So in that split second before you start to work yourself into a frenzy the next time you find yourself getting stressed, ask yourself: “Is this going to kill me? Will I die if I’m late to work?” This is what is known as the process of primary appraisal, and because we live in relative safety compared to our ancestors, 99.9% of the time, the answer to both of those questions is: “No.”

2) Cope effectively. OK, now pay attention. Once you’ve reassured yourself that you will not die if you are late to work, it’s time for question number 2, known as secondary appraisal. “What can I do about? Is there anything I can do to make this fear go away?” And no, calling in sick to work is not a valid answer. But you could take a few deep breaths, call your boss to let her know you’ll be late, or ask if you can call in and do a phone meeting instead. The point is: do something, anything really, to keep your hormones from cascading into alarm. That way, the next time you are stressed, you’ll cope effectively instead of reaching for that doughnut.


About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.