As a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner specializing in Women’s Health, many of the women that come to my practice have menstrual imbalances resulting in painful periods, pre-menstrual syndrome, lack of periods, irregular cycles, uterine cysts and fibroids. For all menstrual issues, there are certain preventative measures to be taken in order to enjoy a smoother period. I have to say that regular acupuncture treatments and a customized herbal formula can have amazing results. Women start to have pain-free periods with minimal pre-menstrual symptoms. With support, women no longer dread their cycles and actually experience them with ease.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine we recommend specific lifestyle changes to be made especially around the menses. My approach is to see this as a time to honor our bodies. Menses is a reminder of this beautiful capacity to reproduce.
First things first, you need to keep track of your cycle. Note the day your menstrual cycle begins on a calendar. Day One of your menses is considered the first day that bleeding begins. By keeping track of your cycle, you can be more connected to your body and your natural hormonal shifts. You can find out how many days between cycles, when ovulation is expected, and when to prepare for the coming cycle.
Generally, fourteen days before your menstrual cycle is when ovulation occurs. Some women experience some lower abdominal cramping, fatigue, or emotional sensitivity around this time. Keeping track of your cycle will allow you to know what to expect. From ovulation until bleeding begins is considered pre-menstrual time. Some women being to experience pre-menstrual symptoms beginning with ovulation, others have symptoms from one to ten days before their menses. Others have no pre-menstrual symptoms at all.
Pre-menstrual symptoms can include breast tenderness, bloating, mild cramping, headaches/migraines, fatigue, food cravings, low libido, insomnia, emotional fluctuations including anger, anxiety, irritability, depression, sadness, and weepiness. All of these symptoms are considered to be affected by the Liver organ in Chinese Medicine. With acupuncture, herbs, diet, and lifestyle changes, we focus on “smoothing” the Liver to have a smoother menstrual experience.
Menses should not be seen as a time for “business as usual.” Rather, it is an opportunity to tune into your body. This is a time to slow down and be gentle with yourself. For some, this might mean canceling regular appointments and commitments in order to do less. In general, you do want more time for rest and this will mean adjusting your schedule whenever possible. Take the time to pamper yourself by taking warm baths and getting more sleep. Schedule a massage the week before your period. This is especially helpful for those who get menstrual headaches and muscle tightness before menses.
Menstruation is a reminder of our ability to create life. Honor this by being more creative at this time of the month. Journal, draw, paint, write, sing, dance, and undertake other creative endeavors for fun and joy.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine we always warn against cold. Cold contracts muscles and slows down circulation. During menses, we want the body to have proper warmth in order to promote circulation. This means that you should avoid overexposure to cold and damp environments. Keep properly bundled up with warm clothing in cold weather. Also avoid eating cold foods including anything with ice – ice cold drinks, ice cream, ice cold popsicles, and frozen fruit smoothies. We also consider raw vegetables to be cold, so eat steamed vegetables instead of salads. Dairy products, including yogurt, cottage cheese and kefir, should not be eaten straight from the fridge, but rather after they have warmed up to room temperature (around 1/2 hour out of the fridge). This is a general recommendation in Chinese Medicine, however it is strongly recommended to avoid cold foods before and during your period. This is a great time for soups and warm teas. For those who experience menstrual cramps, a hot water bottle can be used nightly for a week before menses begins to help warm the uterus and prevent blood stagnation. The hot water bottle will offer soothing relief for cramps as well.
We also want to avoid heavy physical activity before and during the the period. Moderate exercise is often helpful to ease premenstrual symptoms, but extreme amounts of physical activity will deplete the body and create hormone imbalances. So before and during your menses do more stretching, yoga, tai chi, and other relaxing, gentle movements.
Also to integrate in daily life, but especially important before and during menses are breathing exercises. Take slow breaths deep into the lower abdomen, relax your shoulders and neck, and calm the mind. If you have thoughts that come up, just let them gently go. You can listen to relaxing music, you can repeat a positive intention, or just follow your breath as you breathe in and out. Practice this for 10-20 minutes daily. Even just five of these breaths in the middle of your day will produce a significant healing effect.
As for dietary recommendations, avoid alcohol, coffee, and refined flours and refined sugars. Eat whole unprocessed foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruit, eggs, beans, nuts, organic whole-fat dairy, and meat from animals on pasture (grass-fed). Make sure that the animal products are from hormone-free sources. Most dairy and meat contain artificial hormones that have been fed to the animals to increase production. Not only is this inhumane to the animals, you will then consume these artificial hormones thus disrupting your own natural hormones. I also don’t recommend soy due to the estrogenic quality which will disrupt your own hormone balance. Fermented soy in small amounts is usually not problematic- including miso, tempeh, and soy sauce. Other foods such as edamame, soy milk, tofu, and any artificial meat substitute should be strictly avoided.
Eat regular meals at regular times, and eat snacks if needed. Keeping blood sugars stable will help regulate hormones. Eating good quality nutritious meals and snacks will help keep blood sugar stable. Eating enough protein through meat, eggs, nuts, cheese, dairy foods and beans will help. Minimizing processed sugar and refined flour products will also help reduce spikes in your energy level.
Healthy fats are very important for hormonal balance. Avoid fried foods and foods containing partially hydrogenated fats (also know as trans fats). Fermented cod liver oil, fish oil, flax oil, hemp seed oil, walnuts, fatty fish (sardines, wild salmon, mackerel), egg yolks from pastured chickens, and grass fed meat (with the fat) provide healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Gamma-Linoleic acid, a form of omega 6, can often be very helpful to balance hormones. I recommend 1,000 mg per day (500mg 2 x a day or 1000 mg per day) of Evening Primrose Oil taken 2 weeks before menses is expected to help balance hormones. With Evening Primrose oil, women often experience a decrease in premenstrual symptoms such as breast tenderness, mood swings, headaches, and cramping. B vitamins are very helpful. Foods rich in B vitamins include fermented foods, tuna, turkey, beef, brown rice, wheat, rye, lentils, peas, bananas, and cabbage.
Finally avoid plastics and chemicals in general. Certain plastics, especially #7 plastics contain chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body; thereby causing hormone imbalances. In general, chemicals will affect the entire proper functioning of your body and will indirectly affect your hormone levels. Choose organic and natural cleaning products, body care products, and minimize your exposure to chemicals. Choose glass or stainless steel water bottles and food storage containers.
I invite you to try these recommendations to balance your hormones and enjoy easier periods.