Updated: May 4
I'll admit that I knew very little about my menstrual cycle until I started acupuncture school. I went to the gynecologist when I was 16 because of irregular periods. The doctor suggested I go on birth control to regulate my cycles. I thought, "Great, I'll get my period more regularly and not worry about getting pregnant. Win for me." However, little did I know the oral contraceptive pill was suppressing my endocrine system not to ovulate, which is far from regulating my natural menstrual cycle. I stayed on the pill for about ten years until, finally, I listened to my intuition. I decided to stop putting synthetic hormones in my body and figure out if I could regulate my periods on my own.
It took my endocrine system about two years to finally regulate, but I now get regular menstrual cycles every 28-35 days. I did suffer from post-pill acne for many years, but I have managed to get that under control by cleaning up my gut and avoiding gluten and dairy, which can be inflammatory. Our bodies have natural healing abilities; we must give them a good environment, mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, to allow for healing.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. Our society does not teach girls and women to live harmoniously with their cycles. We are made to feel that our periods are dirty or that we must hide them. We are told to either suppress our hormones to mask symptoms, or we are told having dysfunctional menstrual cycles is "normal." If you have painful periods, irregular periods, or heavy bleeding, this is not normal. The menstrual cycle is an indicator of your overall medical health. Therefore, if you experience symptoms in any part of your cycle and are not happy with your medical professional's treatment options, then acupuncture and herbal medicine may offer you an alternative approach to treatment.
The Cycles of a Woman
Each month, every woman with a menstrual cycle goes through a change in seasons (as I so eloquently heard the menstrual cycle referred to). I want women to stop listening to the patriarchal messaging that their period is dirty or something they need to hide and instead see it as a natural, intuitive, and sacred aspect of our lives. The cycles of a woman are a way our bodies communicate to us about our monthly hormone fluctuations. Let's focus on making some lifestyle shifts in our daily and monthly routines to tap into our body's intuitive wisdom. In this article, I hope to educate women about these seasonal shifts throughout the month and offer some lifestyle tips for living, depending on where you are in your cycle. This also includes post-menopausal women or women with their reproductive organs removed. If you understand and appreciate your cycle, you can educate your partners, friends, and family about your physical and emotional needs during the month, leading to better relationships.
Explained: A woman's journey through her monthly cycle
Here is a breakdown of an average 28-day menstrual cycle week by week with guidelines on how to eat, exercise and live. As always, there will be exceptions to these guidelines because every woman is different.
Western physiology: This is Day 1 of bleeding, where you must use a tampon or pad. It will last 3-7 days. There will be moderate to heavy bleeding. Most women lose the majority of blood in the first 2-3 days. Your energy and hormones are at an all-time low during this phase. This can be the cause of PMS symptoms that come before your period. During your period, you're shedding the old uterine lining and starting a fresh cycle of hormones.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM): Chinese medicine treatment promotes warming and movement of qi and blood during this phase for a pain-free period.
Archetype - Wise woman phase
Season - Inner winter
Emotional phrases/keywords - slowness, solitude, sensitivity, inward, wanting space, feeling safe, letting go, don't make demands of me, rest, wisdom.
Diet: Eat warming, slow-cooked, easily digestible foods such as soups and stews to help regulate the process of menstruation. Balance blood sugar by eating healthy whole-grain carbs. You don't want to avoid carbs at this point because your serotonin levels are lower due to the drop in estrogen. Avoid eating cold and raw foods because that slows circulation.
Exercise: it's ok to ditch your workout during this phase if you don't have the energy. However, if you don't want to skip, I recommend doing gentle activities like walking, yoga, or dancing. Exercise can improve your mood and may help with cramps. Do not swim in cold water during this time because cold can slow circulation, which can worsen cramps.
Lifestyle tips: Practice self-love during this time. This is not a time to give to others; instead, ask yourself what you need. I try not to schedule social engagements during this phase and instead nurture myself with home-cooked meals, alone time, being out in nature, sleeping, reading, and accessing my creativity.
Western physiology: This is Day 1-13. A dominant follicle starts to grow. Estrogen is prevalent during this phase, and testosterone starts to rise. Your uterine lining begins to proliferate. There is an increase in libido.
TCM: Chinese medicine treatment focuses on building the blood and yin during this phase.
Archetype: Goddess/Maiden phase
Season: Inner Spring
Emotional phrases/keywords: decision-making, productivity, focused, independent, rebirth, energized, learning, and able to take on challenges.
Diet: At this point, we want to build the blood and yin back up by eating blood-nourishing foods. These include bone broths (here is a blog post about the benefits of bone broth), beets, leafy greens, goji berries, whole grains, and protein-rich foods.
Exercise: The increased estrogen makes you feel energized, so bring on high-intensity workouts during this time, such as cycling, running, and lifting weights.
Lifestyle tips: This is when you can take over the world with this renewed energy. Schedule meetings, make decisions, work on projects, have more social engagements, or take an interview.
Western physiology: This is Day 14-18. The dominant, mature follicle ruptures, releasing the ovum (egg), which travels down the fallopian tube and either meets up with sperm trying to find an egg to fertilize or begins to disintegrate, unfertilized. Cervical mucus is produced as you approach ovulation which predicts your fertile window. Your libido will be at its highest during this time. You are the most fertile at the time.
TCM: Chinese medicine treatment focuses on warming and the movement of qi and blood to release the ovum from the follicle into the fallopian tubes.
Archetype: Mother/Healer phase
Season: Inner Summer
Emotional keywords/phrases: playful, flirty, social, sensual, adventure, giving, outward and expressive, community-focused, relationship building, creating, building, holding space for others, nurturing.
Diet: Interestingly, leading up to and during ovulation, we tend to eat less and exercise more because our energy is focused on finding a mate. Therefore, you might find yourself with fewer cravings and more willpower. Warm and spicy foods are beneficial during this time because they stimulate our yang energy. You will want to avoid cold and raw foods during this phase.
Exercise: Since estrogen is at its peak, high-intensity workouts during this time, such as cycling, running, and lifting weights, are ok.
Lifestyle tips: This is the energy of the nurturing and expansive mother. If you are a mother, this is the most enjoyable time with your children. If you are single, get dressed up and go out with your girlfriends to bring that energy out to the world. Have fun adventures. This may be the best time to ask what you want in your relationships or job.
Western physiology: This is Day 14-28. Progesterone is the dominant hormone during this phase. The course of this phase is determined by fertilization of the ovum. If fertilization has occurred, the ovum will travel through the Fallopian tubes to a supple uterine lining for implantation and growth. If fertilization has not occurred, then about ten days after ovulation, progesterone and estrogen will drop, your uterine lining will shed, and you'll have a period. This significant decline in hormones leads to the signs and symptoms of PMS.
TCM: In Chinese medicine, the treatment is to tonify the Kidney yang and to regulate the movement of qi and blood to help with implantation or to shed the uterine lining for a period.
Archetype: Wild woman/Enchantress phase
Season: Inner Autumn
Emotional keywords/phrases: sensitive, irritable, moody, craving deep connection, conversations, feeling your boundaries, being curious with yourself, slowing down, lower energy, need more space, ask less of me, less focus and concentration, heightened creativity,
Diet: Since estrogen is beginning to drop at this point, our brains need the feel-good hormone, serotonin, which makes us crave sugar, cookies, and cakes because we can get serotonin from carbohydrates. It's important not to give in to sugar cravings but instead feed your body what you're craving: healthy, whole-grain carbs, quality unprocessed fats, and iron-rich foods to satisfy your cravings. Increasing the essential fatty acids during this time helps balance the hormone drop. They can be found in flaxseeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Magnesium can also help boost progesterone levels and balance blood sugar abnormalities. It can be found in dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, and bananas.
Exercise: Some women may want to keep up with regular exercise during this phase, while others may find they want something gentler. Listen to your body.
Lifestyle tips: This is where your energy starts to wind down again, and you might feel like you want to go inward. You may feel anxious about your excessive demands or social plans because you are craving more alone time. If you ignore your physical or emotional needs, this may exacerbate PMS symptoms that are normal during this time. It's okay to say no, reschedule, or ask for more time. By taking time for yourself and acknowledging this inward phase, you will feel inspired to allow your creativity to shine, you may create new ideas for your business or career, or you can enjoy the solitude to recharge and prepare for your next rebirth cycle.