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How The Wisdom of Chinese Medicine Can Help You Optimize Your Cycles

When your hormones are functioning and coordinating really well, you know it. Your skin is great, there’s no bloating, your periods come on time and are not a big deal. But when things are off balance? It can impact you in a big way.

Below, I’ve outlined what I feel are the most important concepts for helping your hormones to hum along like a well-oiled machine. None of these concepts are particularly groundbreaking, but they are each absolutely vital. Pick one or two suggestions from this article (not everything at once- too overwhelming!), focus on them for a few months then see how it feels. Last of all, show yourself compassion when you’re trying to make shifts in your habits- nobody expects you to adhere to these concepts 100% of the time, and remember that when making changes it’s NORMAL and EXPECTED not to! Shoot for 80% of the time and this will still be a huge change.

Know Your Cycles

Whether you want to keep track of your cycles via your paper calendar or an app, it’s important! The patterns of your cycles tell a lot about your overall health, and it’s truly helpful for you to know your body better and what is normal for you. This also helps you to realize more quickly if there might be something unusual going on. I’m a huge fan of the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) described in Taking Charge of Your Fertility– and feel that every woman should use this method for at least a few cycles per year so you can learn about the timing of your periods and ovulation, and how signs and symptoms are correlated with each.  At a minimum, use an app so you can keep track of the date your period starts and ends every month.

Be Active

It’s all about circulation. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, signs of “stuck” blood include painful periods and clots in the menstrual blood. While we use specific acupuncture points and herbs for this issue, you can do things on your own that really help. Exercise, movement and stretching plus massage (self massage and/or with a massage therapist) all help with circulation throughout your body, including your ovaries and uterus.

Regular exercise which elevates your heart rate plus simple, more consistent movement throughout the day can really make a difference. If you have a job which involves sitting at a desk all day, this can really be challenging. You can try things like setting a timer to remind yourself to get up and move once per hour, or simply drink lots of fluids which will serve as an internal alarm to get up (and walk to the bathroom). Could you walk to the next subway stop instead of getting on the one closest to your home or office? Go out for a walk after dinner instead of settling in with Netflix? All of this is not to lose weight! The important thing to know is that an active, non-sedentary lifestyle, regardless of weight, is associated with more regular cycles and better health outcomes overall.

Be Passive

Prioritize sleep and disconnecting from technology at night. The menstrual cycle is a circadian pattern- just like our sleep/wake cycle, its healthy functioning relies on cyclical patterns of hormones. Studies have shown that women who work nights are more likely to have either longer or shorter cycles than normal, and you might have noticed that if you travel to a very different time zone and/or lose a lot of sleep, your period might come earlier or later than normal that month. Disconnecting from technology is another part of your circadian pattern- when you’re exposed to bright light at night from your cell phone, your body gets confused and sleep hormones can’t be released as they should. Some women are more sensitive to the effects of sleep deprivation than others, but it’s safe to say that getting 8 hours of sleep and getting up around the same time every day is something that can definitely contribute to better hormone balance.

In Chinese Medicine, lack of sleep or too much time on your smartphone contributes to what we call blood deficiency- possibly leading to lighter than normal periods, irregular cycles, fatigue and dry hair, skin and nails.

What Goes In Is Important…

Dietary fiber and healthy (unsaturated) fats are two of the most important things for hormone health. Try to eat at least 3 cups of vegetables per day plus whole grains and healthy fats in foods such as salmon, avocado, nuts and seeds and olive oil. 2 Tablespoons per day of ground flax seed has been shown to help improve ovulation and lengthen a short luteal phase (the time between ovulation and your period, which should be around 14 days) (source). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, eating with the seasons is another really important aspect of feeding yourself properly- right now in the wintertime, cooked, warming foods and stews and soups will be most nourishing for your body. Lastly, back to the topic of circadian rhythms, your eating schedule actually influences these patterns in a big way! Try to eat your meals at the same time every day too.

So is What Goes Out!

While you might initially think this section’s title has to do with regular bowel movements, equally important are that your emotions and thoughts “come out”- are expressed and processed! But first, regular bowel movements really do contribute to hormonal balance- did you know  one way that Estrogen is eliminated from the body is via attachment to fiber in your stools and in your urine? Our bodies are fascinating! As far as the emotional side of “what goes out”, studies show that people who don’t express their feelings have higher rates of IBS, autoimmune disorders, ulcers and heart disease. High levels of stress created this way leads to increased cortisol- which interferes with your body’s normal reproductive hormone signaling. Our emotions really do affect our bodies and their ability to function properly! If this is something you struggle with, I highly recommend working with a therapist- it can make a huge difference.

Chinese Medicine ties into all of this in a really interesting way- via the liver organ. We think of the liver as becoming “stagnant” when there is a lot of emotional buildup- tension, frustration, anger and irritability. A “stuck” liver can affect your digestion in many ways, whether it be bloating or alternating constipation and diarrhea. As far as your cycle goes, these liver issues tend to show up as major issues premenstrually.

Try Some Herbal Helpers

I often prescribe an individualized formula of herbs for patients, but for those with mild symptoms or those who just want easy, daily maintenance, there are herbs you can prepare at home!

Below are a few teas or herbal infusions which may be helpful for a few cycle related issues. Herbs are generally very safe, but if you have more questions, are taking medications or are in any way not sure- please consult with a practitioner who has extensive training in herbal medicine for more information!

I’d like to credit the booklet “Sacred and Mysterious” by Brittany Wood Nickerson for the following herbal related suggestions- check her out at Thymeherbal on Instagram. My favorite online source for herbs and teas is Mountain Rose Herbs.

To make a tea: simply pour hot water over the herbs and let steep for 5-10 minutes. This is something you can do on a daily basis and is quick and easy.

To make an infusion: this is where the herbs steep for much longer, and more vitamins and minerals end up in the water. This is better for nutritional support with tonic herbs. Use about 1 TBSP dried herb for every 8 ox boiling water and steep overnight.

To boost pelvic circulation: Red Raspberry Leaf tea and Nettle Tea

To decrease PMS: Tulsi, Lavender and/or Rose Tea

To decrease cramps: catnip, rosemary or ginger tea

Have a Healthcare Team You Trust..

I truly do think it important for women to have an annual visit with their doctor.  Over the years I’ve had so many women ask me for a recommendation for a holistic, low intervention gynecologist. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found one in NYC that I recommend wholeheartedly (I’m sure there are some- please message me if you’ve found them!), so I now recommend seeing a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) instead! They can do so much more than just provide care during pregnancy; you can see them for your annual exam and most any other concern you’d see a gynecologist for. Generally speaking, I’ve found that CNM’s are much more likely to support a low-intervention, holistic and woman-focused model of care.

And Be Open To Alternative Treatments

If you’ve tried everything on this list and it hasn’t done much for the hormone-related issues you’re experiencing, first, I recommend seeing your GYN or CNM for blood work and to check out whether there might be a structural or other cause. If not, or if you just want to explore alternatives to medication or other treatments, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which includes acupuncture, herbs and other modalities might be helpful. Over the years I’ve successfully worked with women on issues such as irregular periods, painful periods, PCOS, endometriosis, PMS and hormonal acne just to name a few. If you have questions, please contact me and I’ll give you my honest answer about whether I might be able to help.

Acupuncture helps via stimulating your body’s own resources, as opposed to methods such as medications or even herbs which bring in an effect from outside of your body. Think of it this way: acupuncture helps your body to make its own medicine- the “medicine” being circulation, endorphins, neurotransmitters and hormones. Your body is already making all of these things, but for many reasons it sometimes isn’t enough to prevent symptoms from showing up. So, acupuncture helps your body do what it already knows to do, but more effectively.