East-West Approach to Menstrual Health and Self-Care

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Dr. Sara Ptasnik
June 3, 2024 / 5 mins read

What is the Menstrual Cycle?
The menstrual cycle involves the signaling between the brain's and ovaries' endocrine systems to coordinate an egg's maturation and release, the uterus's preparation for a potential pregnancy, and the shedding of the uterine lining if pregnancy does not occur. Energy and activity levels will naturally fluctuate throughout this cycle, but significant pain and debility should not happen in a state of balance and health.

Building Awareness
In modern society, we are often pushed to be productive all the time, but that doesn't consider where we are with our natural rhythms. We may not even be aware of how we feel, or we are used to masking our symptoms with medications.

Consider starting a journal that tracks your menstrual cycle and associated symptoms. During the menstrual period, rest and allow the body and mind to slow down. Notice how you feel. Review these self-care strategies as ways to maintain a balanced and healthy cycle.

General Self-Care

  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Consider supplements with omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and/or B vitamins if they are insufficient in the diet.
  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene.
  • Find stress management techniques and outlets for emotional expression.
  • Get regular exercise, but avoid overdoing it!

Self-Care During the Menstrual Period

  • Allow time for rest and avoid strenuous activity.
  • Heat packs or baths may be beneficial.
  • Avoid colds, especially over the lower abdomen and lower back, and minimize cold drinks.
  • Consider more iron-rich foods or supplements to replace blood loss.
  • Gentle abdominal massage with topically safe essential oils may be helpful.

Signs of Imbalance
Though common, significant menstrual symptoms are a sign of imbalance. Painful periods – or dysmenorrhea symptoms – might include cramping pain in the lower abdomen, hips, pelvis, or lower back and can be associated with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Premenstrual symptoms in the days leading up to the period can include mood swings and irritability, headaches, breast tenderness, and bloating.

Other signs of imbalance include the state of the menstrual blood flow: whether it is irregular or stops and starts, whether there is spotting outside of the period, and whether bleeding lasts for too long, is too heavy, or is associated with frequent clots.

Why do Symptoms Occur?
From a Western standpoint and a biomedical standpoint, dysmenorrhea is typically explained by excessive elevation of inflammatory prostaglandins and hormonal imbalance. This can be affected by stress, poor diet, and other lifestyle factors. Medications such as anti-inflammatories or hormonal contraceptive pills may help manage symptoms, but they don't get at the root of why the imbalance occurs, and side effects are possible.

From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) standpoint, the energy within the body is regulated by the balance of yin and yang and the interplay of the five elements. All of the elements—which are associated with different organ systems—have to work together for the different aspects of body, mind, and spirit to function smoothly.

The menstrual period is an essential window into internal health, as it clearly shows how blood and energy (Qi) flow. When one element is out of balance, a pattern can be diagnosed to describe that imbalance. Several patterns within TCM are associated with menstrual problems. Still, the most common ones for young people with dysmenorrhea and premenstrual symptoms involve the Wood element (liver organ system) and the Earth element (spleen organ system).

Liver Qi and the Menstrual Cycle
The Liver Qi in TCM controls the smooth flow of blood and Qi throughout the body, essential in the menstrual cycle. When Liver Qi gets stuck or stagnant, the flow of blood and Qi becomes choppy and irregular. The most common reasons Liver Qi gets stuck are excessive stress, repressed anger and frustration, and being pushed to be too productive.

This pattern is also related to headaches, irritability, and discomfort in the breast, chest, and upper abdomen. When Qi isn't flowing well, blood isn't flowing well, which causes worsening menstrual cramps. Cold also restricts and slows blood flow, making the problem worse. Menstrual blood may be brown if not flowing or associated with clots if there is more stagnation and cold.

Ways to Calm Liver Qi

  • Stress management with breathing or mindfulness practices, spending time in nature, and regular exercise.
  • Creating time for non-productivity or more spontaneous "flow states."
  • Utilizing outlets for anger or frustration like journaling, creative expression, sports, or talking with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist.
  • Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, especially cooked leafy greens.
  • Acupressure massage on Liver-3 point.

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Spleen Qi and the Menstrual Cycle
The spleen system in TCM is responsible for digestion and transforming food into energy. It also plays a vital role in regulating blood. When Spleen Qi is weak, people are prone to bloating and digestive complaints like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low energy, and fatigue.

These symptoms are often worse with menstruation and can be associated with prolonged and heavy bleeding. The spleen system is affected by over-worrying or overthinking, inconsistent schedules, cold foods and drinks, excessive greasy or fried foods, and too much dairy, sugar, and spicy foods.

How to Nourish Spleen Qi

  • Avoid ice-cold drinks and minimize cold, raw foods.
  • Consume cooked root vegetables, soups, and ginger tea to support digestion.
  • Eat slowly and mindfully, not while working or on electronic devices.
  • Process worry through mindfulness, journaling, sharing, or creative outlets.
  • Acupressure massage on Spleen-6 point.

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So many things have to be in balance in the body and mind for the menstrual cycle to function appropriately. Learn about your natural rhythms and, using the tips above, explore ways to bring your body back to balance.

If you or your child is having trouble managing menstrual symptoms, seek extra guidance from your regular healthcare provider and consider treatment with a TCM or East-West Medicine specialist.