As a teenager and well into my early twenties, I frequently suffered from dysmenorrhea– or painful periods. Everyone told me it was normal. Many of my matriarchs confided in me that they had debilitating cramps when their cycles started and well through their school years– painful enough to send them home from work and school. It was also common to have breast tenderness, bloating, and strong mood swings. I saw an OBGYN and they assured me that all of these uncomfortable symptoms were just par for the course– I had nothing wrong with me. Just grin and bear it with the occasional missed class/school day and a heating pad.
Looking back, it amazes me that I often used acupuncture for back pain, sports injuries, and even digestion issues, but I never once sought the help of Chinese medicine for women’s health. Early into my master’s program in East Asian medicine, I was astonished at the depth and breadth of information on women’s health. Chinese medicine has a long history of focusing on women’s health, as well as the search for longevity and even immortality. I think we have all heard the stories of Chinese emperors searching for that one elixir to live forever (and in a vigorous quality of life). Well, the focus on women’s health has been around equally as long as the search for graceful aging in East Asian medicine. It was a savvy choice, as women’s health truly mattered in growing a population.
Basically, Chinese medicine sees a woman’s menstrual cycle (including the length of time between periods) as a way to deduce overall health in a woman’s body. The ideal period is no big deal– minor to zero cramping, barely a change in mood, no breast tenderness, minor bloating or no bloating, no changes in bowel movements during your period, 3-6 days of bleeding, that starts fresh red and tapers off to spotting. When we start to have strong mood swings, irritability, depression, breast tenderness, cramping, body aches, bloating and a variety of other annoying issues, Chinese medicine views it as various organs signaling us that they are getting out of balance. When our organs and the associated acupuncture meridian (or pathway) gets fatigued or stressed, our quality of life starts to suffer long before anything physically becomes wrong with us. Ie- you do not have a diagnosable illness, but it really isn’t fun to be walking around for a week being cranky or crying easily with super tender breast and low abdominal pain. Chinese medicine says, ‘hey, it doesn’t have to be that way.’
The Key Players In A Healthy Menstrual Cycle:
It is tough to condense three years of academic material on Chinese medical theory into a concise blog. Please bear with me. The main organs and their associated acupuncture meridians that impact your menstrual cycle are: the spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, as well as some systems called the extraordinary meridians.
Bloating, Water Weight, Gas, and Changes in Bowel Movements, Heavy periods, Sugar Cravings
The spleen relates to the menstrual cycle in Chinese medical theory because it is in charge of holding blood in the vessels– i.e., regulating bleeding and coagulation of blood. If you have ‘chaotic’ bleeding or abnormal bleeding, then the spleen organ and meridian are involved. Chaotic or abnormal bleeding shows up as bruising easily, slow clot forming when you get a cut, and in exceptionally heavy periods that may or may not actually be long in the length of bleeding days, such as a period that last seven to ten or more days. The spleen is also strongly tied to digestive health (the spleen organ and meridian in Chinese medicine seems to act as both the pancreas and the spleen in Western medical physiology). If the energy of the spleen is tired, you will often have an increase of gas, loose stools, and sugar cravings right before and/or during your period.
The liver relates to your menstrual cycle as one of its many tasks in the body is to ‘dredge the channels and pathways to make the free and clear of any blockages.’ This is a strange translation of classical medical texts that basically means the energetic role of the liver is to pave the way for smooth circulation of both energy (qi) and blood throughout the body. When qi and blood do not circulate smoothly, it causes varying degrees of pain. This often shows up as breast tenderness, headaches, migraines, cramping, clots in the period, and/or significant bloating. Irritability and quick mood swings between frustration, anger, and crying are associated with liver qi that is not moving smoothly. The flavor of foods that soothes the liver is sweet, so we also tend to have strong sugar cravings alongside some of the above symptoms. The sweetness that actually helps the liver and spleen is the sweetness of root vegetables (beets, carrots, and sweet parsnips), squash, and grains, not refined sugar. When we reach for the refined sugar candy bars or extra flavored lattes, we tend to get temporary relief followed by stronger symptoms.
Scanty periods, moderate cramping
The heart is in charge of the quality of the blood. If your menstrual cycle is light, scanty, or non-existent the heart maybe involved. It also has a great deal of less easily translated relationships to your menstrual cycle, one of which relates to volatile emotions or an increase in anxiousness and restless sleep during your period.
Delayed menstruation, Amenorrhea (lack of a period), long cycles, low libido
The kidney relates to the menstrual cycle as being the main organ responsible for our constitutional vigor. Our kidney energy strongly relates to our sexual maturity, i.e.- the start of menstruation, and our sex drive. If the kidney energy is tired, then you may have trouble even having a period. Other symptoms of kidney involvement are low back pain during your period, either a low or hyperactive libido, numb pain or a strong pain in your genitals during menstrual cramping. If the time between your periods starts to stretch out over a few months or your cycle starts to become irregular, often the kidney energy has become fatigued. Please note that this does not mean that your actual kidneys have anything wrong with them.
This is not an exhaustive list of the ways in which our menstrual cycles can go awry. Many of us have cycles that have complicated patterns involving multiple organ systems and other issues that I have not listed above. My main intention with this post is to share the knowledge that acupuncture and East Asian medicine has a deep understanding of our menstrual cycles. It also has an equally deep understanding of how to treat these symptoms with a combination of acupuncture, dietary advice, and the use of Chinese herbal medicine. If you are interested in improving your quality of life around and during your menstrual cycle, I highly encourage you to seek out the advice of an acupuncturist.