Sunday, May 4, 2008

Wine, women and hormones

Wine drinking and tasting can be a very different experience for women than it is for men. Over the years, I have noticed that my appreciation and perception of wine is not consistent over the course of the month. There were times when wine was bursting with bouquet and flavor and at other times the same wine tasted like sour grape juice. On some occasions, I could be on my third glass of wine without any hint of being intoxicated, and at other times one glass would put me down. What could explain the difference in my perception and appreciation of wine? The reason is simple: hormones. Hormones can affect aspects of women’s perception.

We have all heard the wisecracks about women being slaves to their hormonal cycle, however I cannot deny that there is a shift in my perception and enjoyment of wine depending on which hormone is surging through my body. Women’s estrogen and progesterone levels rise and fall throughout the month. When estrogen is on the rise (usually first half of the menstrual cycle), women tend to feel both better physically and emotionally. Around the time of ovulation, a woman’s senses of taste, touch and smell are the most acute and sensitive. When progesterone is on the rise (usually the second half of the menstrual cycle), women tend to have more negative feelings such as irritability and low self-esteem. Progesterone is the hormone responsible for maintaining the lining of the uterus and pregnancy (should it occur). Any woman can attest to the effects of this cycle of fluctuating hormones, and gentlemen: you know EXACTLY what I am talking about. While it may not be a comfortable assertion to make, women’s biology is different from men’s. At the cellular level of every tissue and organ in our bodies, we are built to respond to our cycling hormones.

Hormonal variations affect our nervous system as well and many women will note differences in cognitive abilities such as concentration, memory and variations in mood. The first half of the menstrual cycle can be like a dream. You feel good about yourself, you’re not bloated and your stomach is flat. All is well with the world and wine is very enjoyable during this time. Aromas are sharper, more distinct and pleasing. Complexity of flavors is also more pleasing and everything just tastes better. Could it be that because of the way women are wired, they enjoy wine more during the first half of their menstrual cycle? It’s true for me. During the second half of the cycle, the world and reality take on a whole different tone. With rising progesterone levels, nothing is right with the world, not even wine. This becomes acutely noticeable during PMS, wine seems to taste different: to me it’s more sour and sometimes downright unappealing (especially red wine). 95% of the time, when I did not particularly enjoy wine, I looked at the calendar, and not surprisingly, I was in that fourth week of the cycle dreaded by women and men alike (but quite possibly for different reasons).

Higher hormone levels, especially progesterone levels, bring up another interesting point: The pill. Oral contraceptives are designed to mimic pregnancy so that fertilization does not occur. The body thinks it’s pregnant, so it is driven by the desire to protect the embryo and to find nourishment for it. Wine is not exactly nourishing for the mom and baby, so it’s quite conceivable that women on the pill should have a natural aversion to wine. From my own experience, I didn’t particularly enjoy wine and in particular red wine while taking the pill. I had very little desire to drink it. Could this be why women on the pill are far less likely to enjoy wine than women who are not? Could my experience of disliking red wine while taking the pill point to a reason for many women’s tendency to prefer a safe Chardonnay over a Syrah? Is it possible that women taking the pill who do not enjoy wine, will enjoy wine once they no longer take it? Based on what we know about hormones, the answer just might be “yes”.

Another effect of progesterone on women is that it can lessen your alcohol tolerance. Higher levels of progesterone can limit the body’s production of insulin which is responsible for metabolizing sugar and, to an extent, alcohol. Those same high levels of progesterone are responsible for those sub-human sugar cravings women experience, leading them to feel as if they are possessed for a few days before their period. One glass of wine during the latter part of your cycle can affect you the same way three glasses of wine affect you during the first part of your cycle. It’s unclear as to how much your alcohol tolerance changes or whether it affects all women. My alcohol tolerance drops by half or more during PMS. This can be an important consideration in deciding how much you do or do not drink.

Hormone fluctuations affect women differently and individual reactions and experiences can be as varied as fingerprints. There are some women who say that attributing women’s reactions to the world should not be judged against a hormonal backdrop for fear of discrimination and labeling. Although it is a justified concern, I think women should be more aware of how their bodies and minds change within that 28 to 30 day cycle. It might also explain why that Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir is just not as enjoyable during the latter part of your cycle as it was two weeks earlier. Hormonal fluctuations should be taken into consideration when wine tasting and possibly basing a large volume purchase based on that tasting. I am not suggesting women should schedule and plan their lives around their hormonal cycle. However, women should be more aware of how perceptions of reality can also fluctuate from one week to the next and what effect that has not only on wine appreciation but also on alcohol tolerance.

Irene Gross