Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Thursday 31 May 2012

The menstrual cycle: a window into the female body

A rite of passage can ease a girl into womanhood
In traditional cultures, the women elders prepare younger ones for menstruation and the natural processes to which their bodies are going to be subjected. When the time of the first period comes, girls get introduced into womanhood with an important rite of passage which involves neither shame nor disgust, and that enables them to fully embrace their feminine bodies and quite possibly to never experience PMS, infertility, or menopausal syndrome. Some ancient peoples, such as the Celts,  held the belief that women had heightened psychic and healing abilities during menstruation.
In the West, there is instead little preparation for the events marking puberty and the coming of the first menstrual period, and there is little appreciation or respect for the real significance of these events in a woman’s life. As a result, Western women tend to lack a basic understanding of how female hormones work and how our life-style, our emotions, and the way we treat our bodies can affect our hormonal balance.

The ABC:

 Everything in the body works through a complex balancing mechanism. This mechanism depends on feedback sent by every tissue of the body via the blood and neuro-endocrine pathways to the brain and endocrine glands. Hormones are chemical messengers that trigger functions all over the body and that need to be at optimum levels in order for the whole system to function properly. When the maximum level of a hormone is reached, the feedback mechanism causes the producing gland to stop its release. When taking artificial hormones such as the contraceptive pill, the same feedback mechanism causes a reduction in the production of natural hormones, resulting in inadequate levels of the hormones once the pill is discontinued or, in the worst cases, in an inability of the body to produce its own.

The menstrual cycle can be divided into two major chunks: the follicular phase and the luteal phase.

Each phase has its own characteristics in terms of hormonal activity:

Menstrual phase
Hormonal levels
Follicular phase
Day 1-when period comes- to 14- or to when ovulation occurs
Low levels of oestrogen and progesterone at beginning of cycle
Pituitary hormones rise to stimulate  growth of a new eggs (follicles)
Levels of oestrogen rise steadily to a peak before ovulation
Low hormones cause the period to start
One egg ripens and produces oestrogen
High oestrogen thickens uterine lining and produces “fertile  mucus”
The egg is released- ovulation
Luteal phase
Day 15 –or day following ovulation- to day 28 – or last day of cycle
Oestrogen levels fall
Pituitary hormones fall
Progesterone levels rise to a peak
Oestrogen and Progesterone fall if pregnancy did not occur to begin new cycle
Progesterone stimulates the womb to produce nutrients in case of pregnancy
Progesterone stops the production of pituitary hormones
Low levels of hormones start cycle again

The TCM version:

The menstrual cycle reflects the balance of Yin and Yang
In TCM, what occurs during the first half of the menstrual cycle is regarded as a result of the growth of Yin which reaches its peak during ovulation to give rise to the growth of Yang during the second half of the cycle. This is a reflection of the Yin quality of oestrogen and the Yang quality of progesterone and is a good example of how our body reflects the constant dance of co-creation and equilibrium between Yin and Yang which is represented by the Yin-Yang symbol.

The organs mostly involved in this process are the Kidneys - which govern reproduction, and are the root of Yin and Yang- , the Liver - which make everything (hormones, blood, etc.) flow smoothly, and the Heart – which has a direct link with the Uterus to allow its opening and closing during menstruation and ovulation. The Spleen is also indirectly involved through its role in processing food and drink to produce sufficient Qi and Blood.

The balance of Yin and Yang and the health of four of the main organs of the body are thus reflected in the menstrual cycle. Any symptoms related to the hormonal changes are a reflection of lack of balance in our general health. Symptoms such as weakness and dull aches during the period or an absence of periods (amenorrhoea) may indicate a deficiency in the Kidney energy due to poor constitution, over-exercise or over-work; premenstrual symptoms may be caused by the blockage of the Liver or the Heart Qi from emotional stress or unexpressed emotions; very light periods or bleeding at other times during the cycle may indicate a deficiency in the Spleen Qi from poor diet; lack of ovulation may be due to emotional stress affecting the Heart, and so on.

This is not only relevant for fertility but for our general health. In an interesting analogy by the late Dr John Shen who was renowned as a master at diagnosing disease, he compares the way we treat our bodies to the way we treat our cars. He used to say that not only our cars are regularly checked, but they come with instructions and little lights that lit up every time we need more petrol or to top up the oil and water. Conversely our human bodies, which come with no such instructions or fault-finding devices, are not considered deserving of regular check-ups or even of much concern as to putting the right “fuel”, or correct amount of fluid into them.

I would say that I agree with everything Dr Shen said apart from the fact that women do have the little lights that lit up when something needs attention. This little light is our menstrual cycle.   We have the unique opportunity to check the state of the whole of our health every single month and address any issues there and then. Rather than regarding female hormones to be the producers of symptoms that need to be medicated, we need to regard any disruption of the menstrual cycle as a sign that something is wrong.

Suppressing our natural hormones or the symptoms surrounding the different stages of the menstrual cycle on a regular basis may mask deep issues that are actually affecting our health, and which can result in further imbalances and more severe symptoms.

Looking after your menstrual health:

Apart from following general guidelines for the maintenance of our health such as having a balanced diet and life-style that include enough rest and regular moderate exercise; it may be helpful to read some of my previous posts to understand how to look after the Kidneys, Liver, Heart and Spleen

Here are some general tips to maintain a healthy cycle:
  • Unless absolutely necessary, avoid the use of artificial hormones such as the contraceptive pill. There are many other forms of contraception available that will not interfere with your cycle at such deep level. If it is not possible to do this, try to have regular “pill holidays” to allow your body to attempt to produce its own hormones.
  • Avoid the use of tampons which block the menstrual flow and are often associated with symptoms such as pain and clotting of menstrual blood.
  • PMS is mostly a consequence of emotional or physical stress. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are very effective for severe PMS. There are specific points to soothe pain and to calm the emotions, and excellent herbal formulae that can energetically “decompress” the system so that tension is released. TCM treatment can also help the mind and body to relax and enable us to tackle the actual causes of stress. Other forms of healing and regular meditation can also be of great help especially one week before the period is due.
  • Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, drugs and coffee. This is particularly important in the last week of the cycle as the Qi is gathering momentum to enable menstruation to happen. Stimulants at this time will block the Qi which can result in menstrual cramps and emotional instability. Coffee can also cause severe cramping in those who already experience pain so it is best avoided during the period.
  • Many authors see menstruation as a cleansing event where women can discard both physical and mental toxicity. Make sure you have enough rest during your period and make time for relaxation and quiet contemplation to make the most of the opportunity to cleanse your body and mind.
  • Nourish your Blood after every period. According to TCM, women lose both Blood and Qi during the period. In order to balance this loss we need to put a special emphasis on nourishing the Blood. This can be done by consuming mainly good quality protein and iron-rich foods from day 4 to 8 of the period. Women who are vegan or who experience heavy periods may benefit from using specific Chinese herbal remedies to support the Blood or other natural Iron supplements after every period.

In addition to this, specific symptoms such as those of severe/recurrent PMS, dysmenorrhoea (painful periods), amenorrhoea (absence of periods), menorrhagia (excessive bleeding), endometriosis, infertility, anaemia, etc., can be treated by Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine both of which can be used to regulate the menstrual cycle by harmonising the Qi, Blood and the organs involved in it.

The divine feminine

The menstrual cycle is part of our being women, the more we attune ourselves to its natural rhythm, the more we will be in touch with our whole bodies and with our real selves. This may help us access our real feminine powers, and our ability to create beauty, to create and preserve life, to heal and to bring love into the world.


  1. Thanks for the info! :) I'm having dysmenorrhea now...

    1. Thank you for your comment Anthea. Sorry to hear that you suffer from pain. If you have a local acupuncturist you can visit it is totally worth trying treatment for a couple of cycles as it can be very effective for dysmenorrhea.