Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a really fascinating way of looking at the menstrual cycle- the time from the start of your period to the start of the next one. It is a view that is guided by nature, Daoist principles and yin/yang theory. These principles are based on eating and living according to the rhythms of the seasons and your body’s own unique qualities, which leads to greater health and balance. By being mindful of how your cycle’s rhythms mirror the ebb and flow of the natural world, you can achieve a deeper, more intuitive understanding of your body.
It is important to understand a little about yin/yang theory- what it looks like in nature and how it shows up in or everyday lives. Here is a chart with some examples of yin and yang characteristics:
|Shady Side of the Mountain||Sunny Side of the Mountain|
From this chart, you can see two things: first, that yin and yang are opposites. Second, that they can not exist without each other, and are constantly morphing and transforming from one to the other. For example, Spring represents the gradual transition from Yin to Yang, as does when a person goes from sleeping to awake. There are aspects of the menstrual cycle which are distinctly Yin and Yang, however the constant movement and flux of your hormones leads to change.
Below, I have outlined the four phases of the cycle with details on what takes place as well as recommendations for each.
PHASE 1: CYCLE DAYS 1-3/4 (MENSTRUATION):
- The uterine lining (endometrium) discharges from the body, and the pituitary begins making FSH and LH hormones to stimulate growth of new follicles (eggs).
- In Chinese Medicine, the focus is on invigorating the flow of “qi” and blood to ensure the lining can fully slough off. This also helps with reducing cramping (which can be a sign of stagnant blood). Acupuncture points and herbs to achieve this are performed.
- Lifestyle: Your energy is focused inward, there tends to be more dreaming. Increasing rest and spending time alone or with people you love, and decreasing extracurricular activities are recommended. Gentle exercise only.
- Foods: comfort foods such as stews, casseroles, whole grains and root vegetables.
PHASE 2: FOLLICULAR PHASE (CYCLE DAYS 6 THROUGH PRE-OVULATION):
- One of the follicles becomes dominant and begins to produce more and more estrogen. This causes the uterine lining to thicken and cervical fluid to increase.
- In Chinese Medicine, the focus is on building yin, which corresponds to the blood and tissue in the uterine lining. However there is also a yang aspect in the growth of the dominant follicle.
- Lifestyle: Women tend to feel more outgoing, happy and have increased creativity in this phase. This time of the month is best for vigorous exercise, new projects, being extroverted and having sex.
- Foods: Protein-rich foods are recommended in order to build yin and blood. Beans, fish, eggs and meat are all good choices. Cooked leafy greens and shellfish such as mussels or oysters are excellent in the early part of this phase to re-mineralize the body after bleeding.
PHASE 3: OVULATION:
- LH hormone surges, triggering the release of the egg from the dominant follicle. Fertile cervical mucus (sometimes having an “egg-white” consistency) increases, and the cervix is open.
- In Chinese Medicine, this is when yin energy is at its peak and yang energy begins to rise. This is when your body goes from yin dominance (just before ovulation) to yang dominance (just after ovulation).
- Lifestyle: Verbal skills are at their peak- verbalize your thoughts and feelings, engage in creative activities.
- Foods: lighter foods such as fish, quinoa and salads. In general, Chinese Medicine recommends avoiding too many raw foods since they have a cold nature and can be difficult to digest, but if you eat some raw foods together with cooked foods this is more balanced. For example, have a salad with cooked beets, whole grains and a protein such as chicken.
PHASE 4: LUTEAL PHASE (POST-OVULATION):
- The corpus luteum (the “shell” of the dominant follicle from which the egg was released) begins to secrete progesterone, further changing the uterine lining and causing your body temperature to be consistently higher. The egg travels down the fallopian tube into the uterus. If the egg has been fertilized, implantation occurs.
- In Chinese Medicine, this is when yang energy is at its peak. The major sign of yang energy warmth, evidenced by the higher basal body temperature (click here for more information). If you become pregnant, there is a lot of energy and movement required for rapid cell division and growth of the embryo which has just implanted. However as always there is yin energy working too: if you are not pregnant, not much is going on with your uterine lining (stillness=yin) and in the few days before your period begins, women often report their mood is more withdrawn and they feel less social.
- Lifestyle: Feeling more introverted, intuitive. Premenstrual symptoms such as irritability or crying easily are your body’s clues to slow down. Decrease vigorous exercise, get as massage, journal your thoughts and feelings.
- Foods: Warming foods help to support the warm, yang energy. Increase protein intake again, cooked vegetables, brown rice.