Have you noticed that news comes in waves? Within the past few weeks, both chocolate and caffeine have been in the news for their apparent health benefits: regular chocolate consumption seems to have a remarkable ability to protect against heart disease, and caffeinated coffee appears to help fend off depression in women.
What’s especially interesting to us is the relationship of chocolate and caffeine to PMS and PMDD, though they are related in somewhat different ways. Premenstrual chocolate cravings are familiar to many women, and no one knows exactly why they occur. However, if just a little hits the spot, you’re healthier for having it. On the other hand, overindulging in a sugary, fatty confection can hit the waistline, and the complexion, hard. We don’t think that eating a moderate amount of chocolate has a direct effect on premenstrual symptoms one way or another.
Caffeine, on the other hand, is widely recognized to be a PMS trigger, and caffeine avoidance is usually one of the first self-help steps recommended in popular press articles on finding relief from premenstrual syndrome. This caffeine can come from coffee, decaf coffee (yes, there’s still some caffeine left in decaf), tea, and—oh no—chocolate.
Why should caffeine make PMS and PMDD symptoms worse? For one thing, there is no doubt that caffeine, especially when taken to excess, causes anxiety; anxiety causes stress; and stress and anxiety are two of the signature symptoms of PMS and PMDD. Also, stress actually causes PMS. Caffeine isn’t great for blood sugar, either: it makes your glucose spike higher, and fall further, and that is a recipe for stress, and stress…see where we’re going?
These findings about coffee, women, and depression are fascinating, though we can’t figure out why something that makes anxiety and PMS worse would make depression better. Maybe future research will shed light on those questions, but for the moment we have more faith in the chocolate study. It’s a type of research called a meta-analysis, which is an extensive study of very high-quality studies, making it highly credible. It is pretty clear that, for whatever reason, chocolate is good for your heart.
The coffee study is also a good study, but suggests that the more coffee a woman drinks, the less depressed she’ll be. This just doesn’t sound right, not least because anxiety and depression go together. Drinking over two cups of coffee per day is associated with other problems, and any stimulant needs to be treated with a healthy dose of respect. If you’re concerned about PMS and PMDD symptoms, steer clear of coffee altogether. And enjoy your chocolate.