Why should I care about my menstrual cycle?
Understanding your cycle and reproductive health as a woman (or person with female reproductive organs) is a form of empowerment, and provides a level of deeper understanding and connectedness to your body that is not always taught in schools. Chinese Medicine understands the period as a vital sign, where changes and irregularities indicate an imbalance in the body and/or disease.
How does Chinese Medicine understand the menstrual cycle?
In Chinese Medicine (TCM), the menstrual cycle is a complex ebb and flow of the Yin and Yang energies within our bodies. In Western Medicine, we understand this as hormonal fluctuations that enable the development and release of matured follicles for either conception or loss via a period on a monthly basis.
Yin and Yang are interdependent energies that act as complementary opposites which create a whole. Yin is more related to stillness, night-time, cooling and calmness. Yang, on the other hand, relates to movement, day-time, warmth and expressiveness or exuberance. Within the body, the Yin is understood as the structure; the body itself, whilst the Yang is the energy and physiological action that drives its functions.
What TCM also understands is how we can complement these Yin and Yang fluctuations by living in accordance to our cycle. We can change the way we eat, move and live to help ensure our bodies support our menstrual cycle each month.
Our bodies throughout our cycle: Western vs. Chinese Medicine
Phase 1: Period
Hello menstruation! This first phase occurs from day 1 of bleeding. Most women will bleed for around 3 to 5 days, however, anything up to 7 days is considered normal. During our period, the pituitary gland in the brain begins producing luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates the growth of new follicles (small sacs produced by the ovaries). We lose blood due to our uterine lining sloughing off. Blood is believed to be Yin in nature and therefore, we are losing Yin. This is thought of as a more Yin-type phase of our cycle.
How should we live during menstruation?
As highlighted, we need to replace the Yin we lose, and to do this, we need to stay hydrated, warm, and avoid doing vigorous exercise.
- Don’t deplete your Yin! Enjoy restful activities such as reading, meditation, journaling, cooking and seeing friends and loved ones. If you feel you need to exercise, do some yoga (ideally Yin Yoga) or walking to rebuild your energy gently.
- Drink lots of tea and water during your cycle. Avoid ice-cold or refrigerated drinks.
- Stimulate blood circulation through foods like ginger, eggplant, turmeric, seaweed and apple cider vinegar!
- Eat nourishing, warm and cooked food. Stews, bone broths and soups with veggies, protein and wholegrains are ideal to nourish the blood. Avoid raw, cold foods as these are thought to impede blood flow and create stagnation.
- Keep yourself warm by placing a hot water bottle or heat pack on your tummy. This can help reduce pain in some women, and also assists blood circulation.
- Check out my other blog post on period pain to find out ways that you can manage this naturally with acupuncture and more! Here's an article showing good evidence for acupuncture in reducing this pain.
Phase 2: The Follicular phase
(end of menstruation to pre-ovulation)
This phase begins at the end of menstruation, when the follicles produced in phase 1 begin to grow until one becomes the most dominant. The uterine lining (endometrium) also thickens and grows. After menstruation, Blood and Yin need to be replenished and nourished. Yin is depleted by stress, overwork, over-exercising irregular eating, so allowing time for rest (both emotional and physical) is key! This is also a Yin-type phase.
How should we live during our follicular phase?
- In this phase, many begin to feel more energetic and open. Enjoy having more sex during this time. Light to moderate exercise is recommended, and if you prefer vigorous exercise, make sure you take the time to stretch and refuel, so as not to overdo it.
- Many feel more extroverted during this phase! So, try new things and meet new people!
- Ensure you get enough sleep, which helps us to restore our Blood, Qi, Yin and Yang.
- Eat seasonal fruit and veg and avoid sugary, fried and processed foods. Eat high-quality proteins and lots of good fats to nourish the Blood and Yin. Great foods to eat include dark leafy greens, fish, meats (both white and red), berries, avocado, tahini and nuts/ and seeds.
- Keep your water intake up.
- Avoid alcohol, coffee and smoking.
Phase 3: Ovulation
Ovulation generally occurs on day 11-16 of women’s cycles (not only day 14 as commonly thought!), and is affected by a range of factors, including cycle length and physical and mental health. A surge in LH triggers the release of an egg from the dominant follicle (the one we talked about in phase 2). Yin and fluid levels are at an all-time high, which brings about the appearance of stretchy, fertile mucus (which may look like egg white). This mucus appears to enable sperm to travel to the egg faster. This part of the cycle is thought of as more Yang: warmer and motive, which promotes the release of the egg from the follicles, and allows smooth passage through the fallopian tubes.
This is a transitional phase where we move from Yin to Yang, so live in a more Yang manner!
How should we live during our ovulatory phase?
- Get moving! Perform exercises that promote blood flow through the hips and pelvis. Moderate to vigorous exercise is recommended here, but make sure not to exercise too excessively, which may disrupt your hormonal balance- always listen to your body. Try activities such as jogging, swimming, cycling, Pilates and resistance training.
- Avoid emotional stress and bottling emotions up- verbalise your feelings or journal. It is ideal to avoid repressing our emotions at this time to avoid the occurrence or worsening of PMS during our period.
- Eat lighter foods- enjoy warm salads, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, chicken, beans, eggs and smaller portions of whole grains or carbohydrates. Use mild spices such as ginger, garlic, onion, shallots and cumin in your cooking to move fluids and promote good circulation. Avoid excessive sugar and dairy.
- As always, stay warm and stay away from overly cold food and drinks. Avoid alcohol, coffee and smoking
- Chinese Medicine and acupuncture are often used to promote ovulation for those with ovulatory issues such as anovulation and infertility. Check out this article on acupuncture for promoting ovulation in women with PCOS.
Phase 4: Luteal phase
(post-ovulation to pre-menstrual)
Here, the follicle that released the egg during ovulation becomes the corpus luteum, a temporary hormone-secreting structure. This structure begins to break down when pregnancy does not occur, and releases progesterone. This is the most Yang phase of your cycle, and (basal body) temperature increase is expected here with all the extra warming energy present! If you do become pregnant, Yang is needed here to provide energy and security to grow and hold the fetus.
As we draw closer to our period, many women begin to experience pre-menstrual symptoms, and may begin to feel more introverted and withdrawn.
How should we live during our luteal phase?
- Perform light exercise to promote the movement of Qi and Blood to prepare for a smooth period. Opt for walking outside, pilates, yoga and other lighter activities.
- Treat yourself to a massage or acupuncture session to relax and promote blood circulation.
- Many women begin to feel emotionally sensitive at this time. Feeling down, agitated and upset are messages from your body, telling you to slow down. Journal your feelings and thoughts or get outside to reduce stress.
- Eat plenty of the warm, cooked foods that you would during your period. These will help to boost the Yang to get everything in order for menstruation. Slow-cooked meats, stews, soups and broths with vegetables such as sweet potato, carrots, peas, onion, and garlic, as well as herbs and spices such as ginger, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Steam some green vegetables such as bok choy, green beans and broccoli.
- Avoid raw and cold foods and drinks, as well as too much sugar, dairy, alcohol and coffee.
- If PMS symptoms such as insomnia, pain, depression and digestive problems are bothering you each period, try acupuncture!
Is your cycle irregular; too short or too long?
Have you lost your period?
Do you experience PMS symptoms such as pain, depression, headaches or digestive upset?
Are you preparing to conceive and are unsure how to promote fertility or live with your cycle?
Book in for an acupuncture session today to balance your hormones, restore a smooth menstrual cycle, and look forward to your monthly period rather than dread it!