Anyone who has ever tried to stop smoking tobacco knows how frustratingly hard it can be. New research shows that if women attempt the task in tune with their menstrual cycle, they are more likely to succeed.

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Using hormone fluctuations might help women quit smoking.

Nicotine is an incredibly addictive substance, and it carries with it numerous negative health outcomes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking is responsible for 480,000 deaths every year in the United States alone; that's almost one fifth of all deaths.

More people in America are addicted to nicotine than any other drug.

Although the health consequences of smoking are well known, kicking the habit is still a real challenge for anyone who decides to take the leap.

For these reasons, research that could improve an individual's chances of leading a cigarette-free life is vital.

Previous research has shown that women find quitting cigarettes harder than men. Women also have a 25 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) through smoking than their male counterparts.

Women and smoking

A recent study, published in Biology of Sex Differences, gives new hope to those females attempting to quit.

Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania investigated how timing smoking cessation with the menstrual cycle might make things slightly less difficult.

The current investigation was led by Reagan Weatherill and Teresa Franklin at Penn's Center for the Studies of Addiction. Recently, the team has been dedicating its time to studying the brains of premenstrual women who smoke.

Their research is based on a number of animal studies that have demonstrated that the female hormones - estrogen and progesterone - can modulate addictive behavior; and, because these hormones fluctuate across the menstrual cycle, they make an ideal candidate for smoking cessation research.

"Understanding how menstrual cycle phase affects neural processes, cognition, and behavior is a critical step in developing more effective treatments and in selecting the best, most individualized treatment options to help each cigarette smoker quit."

Reagan Wetherill, PhD

Addiction and the menstrual cycle

Earlier work has shown that during the pre-ovulatory (follicular) phase of the menstrual cycle, when the progesterone to estrogen ratio is lowest, addictive behaviors are more likely to occur. Conversely, during the pre-menstrual (luteal) phase, when the progesterone to estrogen ratio is highest, addictive behaviors are suppressed.

These results infer that higher progesterone levels might help women crack the habit.

The research involved 38 healthy women, aged 21-51. Each received an MRI scan in order to measure the strength of connections between brain areas involved in controlling behavior and those involved in reward.

The team theorized that changes in hormone levels might affect the way women respond to so-called smoking cues, such as a coffee break or the smell of a cigarette. These signals are perceived as rewarding, in the same way that actually smoking a cigarette is.

Earlier research by the team found that women in the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle have enhanced responses to smoking cues in reward-related brain regions when compared with women in the luteal phase. The weaker the connections, the more difficult it is to say "no" to impulses.

Their previous findings spurred the team on to investigate the connections between cognitive control brain regions and reward signaling brain regions in more depth. During the study, the participants were split into two groups, based on their menstrual phase - luteal or follicular.

According to the data, during the luteal phase, connectivity between control and reward regions was reduced. This means that during that particular phase, women were more at risk of allowing their impulses to get the better of them.

"These data support existing animal data and an emerging human literature showing that progesterone may exert protective effects over addictive behavior and importantly, the findings provide new insights into sex differences in smoking behavior and relapse."

Teresa Franklin, PhD

Thanks to these findings, female smokers who wish to quit might now have a new approach. With more than 40 million cigarette addicts in America alone, anything that might heighten an individual's chances of stopping should not be missed.

The research team hopes that this new insight into menstrual-based addictive changes might also assist in the cessation of other addictive substances and behaviors.

Learn how smoking during pregnancy is linked to schizophrenia.