The right time for women to quit smoking
When it comes to giving up smoking, pick the start date carefully. At certain times in your menstrual cycle, you are twice as likely to succeed at kicking the habit. And the same applies to starting a diet, finding a new boyfriend or going for a job interview
In fact, giving up smoking is far from the only thing affected by the menstrual cycle — the ebb and flow of hormones have a powerful impact on nearly all aspects of your life. So, make the time of the month work for you.
The best time to give up drink and drugs Scientists have discovered powerful links between cravings and hormones. Recently, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that women who gave up smoking in the follicular part of their cycle (from the start of their period until ovulation on about day 14) were half as likely to remain smoke-free as those who gave up in the luteal phase (after ovulation, but before the start of the next period). Only two in 10 of the women who gave up in the earlier phase managed to abstain; however, in the second group, four in 10 were successful. Why? It seems the high levels of progesterone found in the luteal phase can help to move nicotine out of the system more quickly, thus reducing withdrawal symptoms. Studies also show women are more easily tempted to smoke by seeing other people smoking when oestrogen levels are high, as in the follicular phase.
Don’t be tempted to experiment with drugs such as cocaine in the first half of your cycle, either. Large amounts of oestrogen also boost levels of the pleasure hormone dopamine and reduce the amount of mucus in your nose, ensuring you will get more of a hit from the drug, thus increasing the risk of addiction. And if you want to stay sober, the hormone allopregnanolone is your friend. This also peaks in the phase before ovulation, and high doses reduce your desire to drink.
The best time to hit the gym Want to show off your stretchy yoga moves in class? Shift your mat to the front just before your period, as this is when you are most flexible. A hormone called relaxin peaks at this time, softening your ligaments. But don’t go mad — that extra flexibility may result in injury. A study at the Portland Hospital in London found that women were at the greatest risk of damaging their ligaments at the end of their cycle, but were also in danger of pulling muscles and ligaments halfway through the cycle, as levels of the strength-giving hormone oestrogen drop suddenly after ovulation.
For aerobic exercise, pick days 15-22, when rising progesterone will make working out feel easier, and you will burn up to 30% more fat, according to a study published in Australasian Science magazine. If you prefer a weights-based workout, do it in the first half of your cycle, as high oestrogen levels will make you stronger. And if you want to run a marathon, the best days are just before ovulation (days 9-12) and just after (days 17-20).
The best time to meet a man Looking for romance? Then schedule your social life for the week around ovulation, when you will not only appear more attractive to men, but, if you lay off the deodorant, even smell irresistible. A study published in the journal Ethology asked men to sniff the armpit odour of women at different stages of their cycle. The result? The armpit odour of women who were between the end of their period and ovulation — when they are most fertile — was considered the most attractive and least intense.
This surge in attractiveness is matched by a leap in libido around day 13, when rocketing oestrogen and testosterone make a woman feel, dress and even walk (yes, really) more sexily, as nature conspires to make you pregnant. However, a study at the University of St Andrews says the surge in attractiveness around ovulation is masked in women who wear too much make-up. So, the moral is, get out there, but leave the slap and antiperspirant alone.
The best time to have a painful experience Putting off going to the dentist because of the painful needle? Dreading booking that Brazilian wax? Then schedule both for bang in the middle of your cycle. At ovulation, you have a higher pain threshold than at other times, due to the large amounts of oestrogen in your system.
If your idea of agony is applying for a new job, then try to avoid an interview in the days before your period if you don’t want to seem nervous or flustered. According to Dr Ann Rasmusson, a neuroendocrinologist at Yale University in America, this is when you are most likely to be affected by stress. “Levels of progesterone and other related neurosteroids drop dramatically at this time,” she says.
The best time to start a diet According to a team of South African researchers, your food intake can vary by a staggering 2,500 calories a day, depending on your hormones levels. And when it comes to starting a diet, scientists suggest you will be less hungry when your period begins. A study by researchers at Tufts University, Massachusetts, indicates that women eat 12% less per day at the start of their cycle because their levels of oestrogen are lower.
After ovulation, your appetite is naturally boosted by hormones, so if you do happen to be pregnant, you will want to eat enough for two. However, your metabolism and urge to exercise are higher after ovulation, too, so by heading to the gym, you might be able to work off those extra calories.
In a paper published last year in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers say, perhaps unsurprisingly, that women tend to experience cravings for sugary and high-carbohydrate foods just before their period, and they also have the most trouble controlling their hunger at this time.
The scientists agree that starting a diet after day one of your period could be helpful, and also suggest increasing calorie intake by about 100-200 calories when you are premenstrual, so you don’t get so desperate that you find yourself on the phone to Pizza Hut. Their suggestion for how to consume those extra calories? Best-quality dark chocolate. These are the kind of scientists we like.
Understanding your cycle
The average woman’s natural menstrual cycle takes about 28 days, though this can vary by about five days either way. Menstruation normally starts about 14 days after ovulation. The cycle is divided into phases. The first day of a period is day one, and the start of the follicular phase, when an egg starts to ripen in the ovaries. The next stage is ovulation (about day 14), when the egg is released to be fertilised (or not). After ovulation comes the luteal phase, which lasts until the start of the next period.
Straight after a period, levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone are relatively low. Oestrogen levels rise to a peak at ovulation, then drop. Progesterone levels rise after ovulation and peak halfway through the luteal phase (about day 21), then fall dramatically just before the start of menstruation.