HARMONISING THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE WITH CHINESE MEDICINE.
Over 10 years of practise as an acupuncturist specialising in women’s health I have found that many of my patients’ health issues have their roots in a disruption of the menstrual cycle. From severe depression to fibromyalgia, migrane to chronic fatigue syndrome, experience has shown me that by harmonising the menstual cycle with Chinese medicine, chronic and often severe conditions that are often not obviously related to reproductive health can be sigificantly improved .
In this article I want to give you a short explanation of the fundamentals of my work. I am going to explain how Chinese medicine can work with each phase of your cycle and what you can do to support this. It is important that you understand, however, that what I am about to describe is a balanced picture, or in other words, what happens to a woman who has a regular, trouble free, easy, comfortable, pleasureable, creative menstrual cycle. Which is, I might add, every woman’s birthright. Many, if not most, women do not experience their cycle in this way but this certainly does not mean that they can’t. Experiencing our bodies as nature intended us to is a fundamental right that is shared by each and every one of us and I think it is important to remain mindful of this fact.
In order to understand how Chinese medicine can help you there are a few basic Chinese medicinal concepts that you need to grasp.
Lets begin with Yin and Yang. It humbles me to attempt to explain the meaning of this universal truth in a short paragraph. Opposites yet complementary like day and night, hot and cold, wet and dry, emptiness and form, female and male. Yin and Yang form a binary code that tells us of the dynamic interdependence of all things. We can’t have day without night, or wet without dry or dark without light. Together yin, the female, dark, empty, passive principle, and yang, the male, full, light, active principle, describe the holistic nature of a composite universe. According to Chinese medicine our bodies are constantly experiencing fluctuations in Yin and Yang energies. Life authentically experienced is indeed a constant state of change.
Blood has a much broader meaning in Chinese than it does in the West. As well as fullfilling it’s basic biological functions, for example of transporting nutrients, and oxygen etc, the Chinese believe that Blood also carries vital energy, or Qi, around the body along specific pathways called Meridians. Blood is also the vehicle for our emotional and intellectual intelligence and thoughts and feelings are believed to carried around the body by the blood.
Shen is a very beautiful concept. It has to do with the Heart. For me, the image of Shen is of an opening lotus flower with a thousand petals. Shen is the spirit of a blossoming heart. The full creative, joyful, authentic human expression of all that we are here to do and all that we have to offer the world in our own unique and individual way.
Shen has it’s roots in Jing, one of the most precious substances on the planet. I invite you to take a moment to imagine that at the moment of your conception your parents opened an inner bank account for you. In it they deposited in trust all of the wisdom passed down from your ancestors. A fund, if you like, that they hoped you would spend wisely to support you through life’s transitions and unpredictable ups and downs. Jing is a kind of distilled essence, an elixir of life stored deep inside the body. More precious to humankind than liquid gold, when we are conceived we are given our Jing from our parents, grandparents, great grandparents ad infinitum. The quality and quantity of it is in direct relation to the age and health of our parents when they made us. The amount we have is finite. It contains our genetic blueprint, our DNA code, in short, all the information we need to know who we are and why we are here. We use our Jing to support major life transitions such as birth, menarche, conception, pregnancy, birthing, menopause, andropause and death.Jing plays a crucial role in reproduction and growth and in many ways can be seen as that which connects us to both heaven and earth.. Eggs and sperm and menstrual blood are formed out of Jing. In our modern age stress and pressure to conform and consume have led to life’s cycles speeding up. Fast and furious lifestyles have resulted in the early onset of menstruation in young girls fuelled by poor diet and precocious sexual activity. Teenage pregnancy statistics continue to rise and ‘morning after’ pill sales sky rocket. New reproductive technologies dehumanise conception with little regard for the consequences. Birthing has become increasingly medicalised and hospitalised. The number of cesarean sections has doubled globally in the past decade, many of these are elective. 21st century women live hard working, often stressful and competitive career driven lives and some are experiencing the onset of menopause in their 40′s. We are spending our Jing in ways that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago. I think of Jing being as being like the planet’s own oil reserves which should perhaps, in the natural order of things, have remained deep inside the earth to lubricate the smooth flow of Earth’s daily revolutions. Jing is the somatisation of a profound wisdom. The substance most intimately connected with life itself. Although we cannot replace or refill our supply of Jing, there is much we can do with acupuncture and nutrition to preserve what we have and, of course, many choices we can make to ensure we spend it wisely.
So with these concepts in mind, we can now take a look at the different phases of a regular 28 day menstrual cycle from a Chinese medical viewpoint.
As the Eskimos have hundreds of words to describe snow, Chinese medicine has many terms to describe how women’s bodies make menstrual blood. It originates in a substance called Tian Gui or Celestial Waters. As the name suggests, this is clearly a sacred substance. It goes through an elaborately described process of transformation before it finally becomes the period, Jing Shui, or Monthly Waters. The Chinese calendar has 13 months and is lunar. This name roots menstration with the cycles of the moon in an overt way.
Lets start by taking the first day of your period as day one of the cycle. Hopefully this will be on the dark moon. (To regulate your cycle to the phases of the moon it helps to sleep with a light on or the curtains open , if there is not too much light pollution, for the three days around the time of the the full moon.) I think I am probably right in saying that there are not many women these days who actively look forward to this ‘time of the month’. For me this is a great shame, as there is a great deal of power and insight available to us at this time.
Estrogen and progesterone, the Yin and Yang queen and king of the hormone family are ideally both at their lowest levels around the time of menstruation. Throughout the cycle these two amazing hormones are in a state of constant interplay. Like two seahorses who have chosen to stay together for life, they play out a beautiful and elaborate dance in which movements and changes in one will influence the movements and fluctuations of the other. We will hear more of them later. As a result of this low level hormonal activity, our moods are balanced, calm and centred. Our focus is internal. It is a natural time for solitude and reflection on the events of the past month and to let go of thoughts and feelings and situations that do not serve you well.There is a great opportunity to allow all neagive energy to flow down into the earth with the movement of the menstrual blood, where it will be neutralised. It’s a important to dedicate some time and energy to yourself now. It helps to set an intention before your period starts to embrace quiet stillness instead of allowing this to distort into feelings of loneliness or depression. Plan to reduce social contact to a minimum. Completely avoid negative or casual sexual contact. Practise emotional non attatchment. Take especially good care of yourself. Think about what you might like to manifest in the next cycle. What to you need to let go of? What do you have to be grateful for?
Qi and Blood are moving. Anything that impedes this physical and emotional flow will create stagnation and pain. Acupuncture treatments during the period are simple and minimal with a focus on encouraging Blood and Qi to move and the Shen to calm. In cases where there is severe discomfort or distress I work on deep pathways in the body called the Extraordinary Meridians. These are like reservoirs where Jing is stored and circulates and often where non somatic symptoms are best addressed. I find that by working at this deep level I am able to address trauma past or present in a profoundly effective way.
It is very important to keep warm at this time. A cold uterus can cause all sorts of unwanted problems. Don’t walk around bare foot unless it is a hot, sunny day. Make sure you wrap up warm after a bath. Dry your hair before you go out and don’t go out in inadequate clothing. I am grateful that the seemingly never ending fashion for hip skimming, midriff exposing clothing is now yesterday’s black. Not only has it been deeply unflattering to any woman with a remotely womanly figure, it has also led to a great number cold uteruses. While we are on the subject of what we wear, I am not an advocate of tampons and certainly not ones that are made from bleached, non organic cotton. Toxic shock syndrome is a serious, life threatening condition. Tampons work like a plug and provoke muscular contraction to be kept in place. This could well contribute to period pain. Furthermore, the act of plugging the flow can force menstrual blood in a retrograde direction and this may in some cases contribute to endometriosis. Moon cups are not only cheaper and safer, more comfortable and less wasteful, they also allow you to see what is going on each month.
Returning to the issue of cold, nutritionally avoiding cold is also important. Anything straight from the fridge, yoghurt, water, juice etc is not a good idea at any time, but especially not during your period. Raw foods, dairy, soya and other cold energy foods need to be kept to a minimum. Menstruation is a very earthing process and so foods that correspond to the Earth element are the best to eat at this time. All the round and yellow foods; millet, rice, barley, lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin, carrots, dates and figs are just a few examples of earth element foods. All of these are easy to digest, mostly neutral, warming and nourishing. Just what you need at this still and hormonally neutral time. It is important to eat some Jing tonics too, such as black sesame seeds, bone stock, seaweeds, gelatine and walnuts, for example. If there are stagnation issues we can add things that move blood such as aubergine or cayenne pepper.
As the moon beging to wax, we move into the follicular phase of our cycle, around day 7. This is when this month’s chosen egg begins to grow inside the follicle in our ovary. Estrogen begins to rise and edges towards centre stage as progesterone hovers in the wings. The uterine lining begins to thicken up, preparing a cosy nest for a potential new life to grow. This process is paralled in our outer lives. It is a good time to plan and prepare the ground for whatever you want to plant and reap in this month. What are the projects you would like to realise, or the problems you would like to solve? This part of your cycle is also a natural opportunity to get creative. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, just something creative that you enjoy doing. We find we can organise easily, plan for the future, creatively problem solve, create new friendships, develop new ideas and hold a great deal of information at this time. It is an ideal time to tackle complex ideas or to start a new project. I think it is really helpful to also take this opportunity to decide on an emotional issue you would like to work on this month. A family relationship perhaps, or an old hurt from the past. If you do this now you will very possibly contribute to a much smoother pre menstrual experience later on in thew month, and if practiced over time you may well find you experience an easier transition into menopause, when it is time to let go of family line issues completely.
From an acupuncturist’s point of view, there is an abundance of Qi and Blood as the deep meridians Chong and Ren Mai begin to refill. Acupuncture at this time focuses on building blood and nourishing Yin. The follicar phase is a relatively Yin time and we can help to support this with Yin foods and blood building foods such as lovely dark green leafy vegetables, all the red beans, red berries, oily fish, grapes, seaweed, black sesame seeds, dates, beetroot, spinach, brewers yeast, wheatgerm, are just some examples of good, blood building yin foods. It may also be necessary to take a good quality iron supplement. As a recent convert to a daily low dose of iodine in the form of Lugols solution
I cannot recommend this strongly enough. The supplement protocol recommended by Dr Hopwood explained elsewhere on this website is excellent. I can only reiterate Dr hopwood in saying that following this protocol will be some of the best spent few moments of your day.
As the Follicular phase draws to a close , around day 14, we begin to secrete pheromones. These make us hugely attractive and desirable to men. We feel more attractive and shapely and our libido rises. The moon is full. There is an abrupt rise in the neuropeptides FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and LH(luteinising hormone), and a massive rise in estrogen, the Yin hormone, that accompanies the neuropeptides. As the ovary prepares for the wonderfully creative moment in which it releases the egg, Yin reaches it’s zenith and prepares to transform into Yang . Ovulation presents a time of mental, emotional and spritual creativity at it’s peak. The increase of seratonin and endorphins that accompanies the rise in estrogen and mitigated by progesterone leaves us feeling fantastic. We enjoy a heightened feeling orientated perception around ovulation. It is a good time to tackle that emotional issue you have on your list as our creative energy has a strong emotional focus now. We have more empathy, compassion and are able to be more creative in our problem solving.
It is also a really good time to go out, be more sociable, make new friends and have adventures. Adrenalin is at higher levels than normal. You don’t need much sleep and almost certainly need more orgasms, with or without Mr or Ms Right.. Give form to your plans and projects too. Express yourself. Your Shen is radiant as this hugely creative act is taking place inside of you.
Nutritionally this is the time to be a little more relaxed. In other words, if you are going to indulge at all, now is the time to do so. It is especially good for the Shen to eat with other people. Have a dinner party or get invited to one. You can handle slightly richer food than normal, as well as more variety. The odd glass of wine does not go amiss right now either unless, of course, you are trying to concieve. Include bitter foods, much maligned in our salt and sugar dominated society. The Shen loves bitter foods such as endives, chicory, watercress and lettuce.
Energetically,for Yin to transform into Yang the Yin needs to have been well nourished with the right food and a good acupuncture prescription during the follicular phase. This is mirrored physiologically by the threshold levels of estrogenic hormones needing to be reached before ovulation can occur. Chinese medicine can facilitate this in many ways; by nourishing Yin prior to ovulation, and by regulating and moving Qi and blood around the time of ovulation itself.
The Luteal phase of our cycle begins after ovulation, around day 14. The moon is beginning to wane. As the moon enters it’s darker phase, so do we. This phase of the cycle is much maligned by society and its not surprising that we can be our own worst judges around this time. Estrogen levels start to drop and now it is the turn of progesterone to play the starring role. Progesterone is warming , drying and protective and contractive and therefore Yang by nature. Emotionally it has a tranquilising effect and it encourages a kind of turning inwards. This makes a lot of sense given what the body is actually doing. Progesterone also helps to warm up the uterus and dry up the cervical fluids. This rise in body temperature is crucial if a fertilised egg is to become a viable pregnancy. Infact, between now and the period progestorone can be up to 200 times more present in the body than estrogen. Unfortunately this is often not the case and the pre menstrual phase is usually when most women suffer the most. Estrogen dominance is rapidly becoming a world wide epidemic. The contaceptive pill and HRT can result in estrogen levels raised up to a hundred times the normal levels. IVF treaments can raise these levels even higher. When we add this to stress, pharmacutical drug dependency, environmental toxins such as pesticides, herbicides, plastics and PCB’s, all of which raise estrogen levels, we can see how we have got into a big mess. When progesterone and estrogen lose their fine balance all sorts of physiological disruptions take place accross the hormonal landscape. Adrenalin, testosterone and cortisol, to name but a few, can be affected. Depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, insomnia are just some of the symptoms of estrogen dominance. It is crucial that hormone imbalance at this time is addressed properly. The luteal phase can offer us the opportunity to connect with our inner selves and with what is not working in our lives. Dreams can be more vivid. At this time the division between the conscious and unconscious mind is less defined and we have access to great insight. The nature of our creativity at ovulation was overt and expressive, now it has more to do with intuition and quiet reflection and flashes of inspiration that come under the cover of darkness. Studies have shown that the right brain is indeed more active at this time. The reality is however that many of us have a terrible pre menstrual experience. Digestive problems, angry outbursts, anxiety, the re experiencing of old hurts and disappointments, feeling frustrated, overburdened, resentful or downright suicidal are symtoms my patents often describe. We have all been there, haven’t we? We can choose to bottle this all up, for the sake of pretending to be ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ or ‘feminine’. In doing so we block the flow of life even further and run the risk, at best, of a terrible menopausal experience. However challenging, there is great opportunity at this phase of the cycle. My advice is that you find some way of letting go of all the things, within reason, that you really don’t like doing. The chores, housework, the sorting out of family squabbles…just for this week forget about the effect on others if you can’t always be superwoman and simply respect yourself. Learn to say no. Be wise instead of reactive. Go to bed early. Keep warm.
It is enormously helpful during the luteal phase to work on liver detoxification and I strongly recommend the techniques Barbara Wren suggests in her wonderful book ‘Cellular Awakening’. These include dry skin brushing, castor oil packing and coffee enemas that all help to keep your energy moving ,bring some light to the situation and prevent you from getting ‘stuck’ at this crucial time. Acupuncture can support you in innumerable ways now. Calming the Shen, moving Qi and Blood, freeing up the liver, warming the kidneys with moxa, tonifying the Jing…..There are many things to do and potentially amazing results to be had as acupunture assists the cycle to complete; Yang reaches it’s zenith and tranforms itself intoYin, manifesting once again in a healthy menstrual flow the beginning of new cycle.
I encourage you to begin a menstrual diary. Even if you simply take four bits of paper and plan for each phase of the month and moon : Period, follicular, ovulation and luteal, according to the guidelines I have set out here. You may well discover some interesting results and insights. It doesn’t cost anything to have a go! If you are interested in working with your cycle in more depth with me, or you are suffering from a debilitating menstrual disorder, please do get in touch. I currently have special offers if you would like to try out a month of treatment.
I hope this short article has gone some way to illustrate how Chinese medicine has a deep affinity with the menstrual cycle. Yin Yang theory has it’s origin in the I Ching, or Book of Changes. This incredibe text describes how life unfolds as a seamless process of change. The opposite of change, it states, is not going backwards, but standstill. In the same way anything that blocks the natural rythmns of a woman’s monthy cycle through it’s yin and yang phases, be it physical or emotional, will ultimately result in some sort of disharmony. Acupunture is a gentle, safe,holistic form of treatment than can remove blockages and bring you back into a harmonious relationship with the rythmns of the natural world, your cycles and self so that your Shen can shine.