Chocolate and Menstrual Cramps: Friend or Foe?

Chocolate and Menstrual Cramps: Friend or Foe?

Craving for a piece of chocolate during menstruation? You're not alone. Chocolate is one of the most common cravings women report during their menstrual cycle. But what's the real deal with chocolate and menstrual cramps? Is it a friend or foe? Let's delve into the science behind chocolate and its effects on menstrual health.

The Nutritional Content of Chocolate

Chocolate is well known for its fine flavor, and its history began in ancient times, when the Maya considered chocolate (a cocoa drink prepared with hot water) the “Food of the Gods”. Interest in chocolate has grown, owing to its physiological and potential health effects, such as regulation of blood pressure, insulin levels, vascular functions, oxidation processes, prebiotic effects, glucose homeostasis, and lipid metabolism. The food industry produces many different types of chocolate: in recent years, dark chocolate, in particular, has gained great popularity. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is rich in various nutrients that play important roles in our body, including:

  • Magnesium: Chocolate is a good source of magnesium (with up to 252.2 mg of Mg per 100 g of chocolate), a mineral that can help alleviate menstrual cramps. Magnesium helps regulate nerve and muscle functioning, among other vital tasks. Some scientists suggest that magnesium can help relieve menstrual pain by reducing the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like substances associated with pain and inflammation.
  • Riboflavin: It is a type of vitamin, which has been reported to be efficient in the reduction of the frequency of migraines in adult patients. It is known that migraine sufferers have chronically decreased serotonin levels, while the concentration increases during an attack.
  • Tryptophan: It is an essential serotonin precursor; thus, its depletion, which can occur with decreased dietary tryptophan intake, may increase the susceptibility to migraine-associated symptoms. Studies have shown that subjects who had a greater intake of tryptophan per day had reduced odds of developing migraine. This means that chocolate, which contains both tryptophan and serotonin, by increasing serotonin levels, may also decrease the migraine frequency.

On the other hand, however, there are also some nutrients that may cause health concerns, such as:

  • Caffeine: Chocolate also contains caffeine, although in smaller amounts than coffee. Caffeine has a complex relationship with menstrual cramps. For some, it may alleviate menstrual pain by reducing the size of blood vessels in the uterus and decreasing blood flow, thus lessening the severity of cramps. For others, it might exacerbate menstrual symptoms due to its stimulant nature.
  • Sugar: Chocolate, particularly milk chocolate, often contains high amounts of sugar. As discussed in another article, sugar can promote inflammation and hormonal imbalances, potentially worsening menstrual cramps.

Chocolate Cravings during Menstruation

Many women report craving chocolate during their menstrual cycle. Although the exact cause is unclear, several theories exist. Some scientists suggest that these cravings might be the body's way of seeking magnesium, which is found in chocolate and can help relax muscles and reduce cramping.

Another theory is that chocolate cravings might be more psychological than physiological. Chocolate is often seen as a comfort food, and eating it can stimulate the release of endorphins, the body's natural 'feel good' chemicals, helping to elevate mood and alleviate stress and anxiety often associated with menstruation.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Chocolate Consumption for Menstrual Cramps

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, can be beneficial for menstrual health due to its magnesium content and potential mood-boosting effects.  It contains several health-promoting factors (bioactive components - polyphenols, flavonoids, procyanidins, theobromines, vitamins and minerals) that positively modulate the immune system of human beings. 

However, the benefits must be balanced with the potential drawbacks. The high sugar content in many chocolate products can promote inflammation and hormonal imbalances, potentially worsening menstrual cramps. Additionally, the caffeine in chocolate might exacerbate menstrual symptoms in some individuals.

Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate for Menstrual Health

When it comes to menstrual health, the type of chocolate matters, such as:

  1. Dark chocolate contains cocoa bean solids (up to 80% of the total weight) and cocoa butter. With the intense, persistent aroma of cocoa, it melts in the mouth, leaving a pleasant, bitter aftertaste. Its quality depends on the percentage of cocoa. Most of the health benefits attributable to chocolate are associated with consuming the dark type.
  2. Gianduja chocolate is a combination of hazelnuts, cocoa, and sugar; it is brown.
  3. Milk chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder, lecithin, and cocoa (the latter not less than 20–25%). With a bright appearance, it has an intense, persistent aroma and sweet taste with a slightly bitter accent of cocoa.
  4. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, milk, and sugar with no cocoa solids; it has a sweet, pleasant taste.

In particular, dark chocolate, which contains more cocoa and less sugar and milk than milk chocolate, is typically a healthier choice. Dark chocolate has high percentages of cocoa, flavonoids, and theobromine and low content of sugar, differently from milk chocolate or other types of chocolate, would be associated with health-promoting effects, including the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Similarly, cocoa induces positive effects on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and vascular function. It is richer in magnesium and antioxidants, substances that can help reduce inflammation in the body.

Milk chocolate, on the other hand, often contains higher amounts of sugar and fewer beneficial nutrients. Milk chocolate has been believed to be associated with adverse effects due to its sugar content. Therefore, it's generally less recommended for menstrual health.

Conclusion

So, is chocolate a friend or foe when it comes to menstrual cramps? The answer is: it depends. Dark chocolate, consumed in moderation, can provide valuable nutrients and potential mood-boosting effects. However, the high sugar and caffeine content in many chocolate products could potentially worsen menstrual symptoms.

The key lies in mindful consumption. If you crave chocolate during your menstrual cycle, opt for dark chocolate with a high cocoa content and lower sugar levels. As with any dietary changes, listen to your body's signals, and consider consulting with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to make dietary choices that best support your health.

Remember, every individual is unique. What works for one person might not work for another. Understanding your body's responses to different foods can empower you to make informed dietary choices that support your menstrual health and overall well-being.

【Reference】

  1. Montagna MT, Diella G, Triggiano F, Caponio GR, De Giglio O, Caggiano G, Di Ciaula A, Portincasa P. Chocolate, "Food of the Gods": History, Science, and Human Health. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 6;16(24):4960. 
  2. Nowaczewska M, Wiciński M, Kaźmierczak W, Kaźmierczak H. To Eat or Not to Eat: A Review of the Relationship between Chocolate and Migraines. Nutrients. 2020 Feb 26;12(3):608.
  3. Gök S, Gök B. Investigation of Laboratory and Clinical Features of Primary Dysmenorrhea: Comparison of Magnesium and Oral Contraceptives in Treatment. Cureus. 2022 Nov 29;14(11):e32028.
  4. Drummond, P. D. "Tryptophan depletion increases nausea, headache and photophobia in migraine sufferers." Cephalalgia 26.10 (2006): 1225-1233.
  5. Samanta S, Sarkar T, Chakraborty R, Rebezov M, Shariati MA, Thiruvengadam M, Rengasamy KRR. Dark chocolate: An overview of its biological activity, processing, and fortification approaches. Curr Res Food Sci. 2022 Oct 15;5:1916-1943.
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