In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the rhythm of the menstrual cycle depends on specific interactions between Yin and Yang energies in the menstruating body. Yin can be thought of as substance or nourishment and is related to the physical structure of the ovaries, uterine lining, fluids and secretions. Yang can be thought of as proper functionality of the ovaries, warmth, movement and energy needed for the cycle to progress normally. When the Yin and Yang activity in the body is cycling correctly, the period is predictable and the uterus is primed for fertility.
In biomedicine, the menstrual cycle is divided into two stages: the time prior to ovulation (when the egg is released from the follicle) called the follicular phase, and the time after ovulation known as the luteal phase. In TCM, these two phases are further divided and looked at as four separate stages: the first two are considered Yin in nature, and the second two, Yang.
Here is an overview of the physiological process of menstruation as seen in Chinese medicine along with some lifestyle and dietary tools that you can apply to support your own cycle:
Follicular phase (begins on first day of period)
Stage 1: Menstrual phase
During this stage uterine blood is eliminated through menstruation. Liver Qi moves the blood out. New follicles begin to grow and mature.
In the menstrual phase it’s normal to feel somewhat withdrawn and less energetic. This is the ideal time to take it slow… stay in for the night, add gentle movement and meditative practices such as Yin yoga or Qi Gong. Nourish yourself with warm, cooked veggies like beets and dark leafy greens, and add some eggs and grass-fed red meat into your diet. Casseroles, soups, stews and bone broth are all excellent choices.
Stage 2: Post-menstrual phase
The body begins to make more blood and Yin. The uterine lining thickens to prepare for the potential of a fertilized egg and vaginal secretions (Yin) increase.
This is prime time to build blood and Yin! Nuts and seeds, avocado, hormone-free chicken, oats, quinoa and cooked, sweet veggies like carrots, beets, sweet potatoes and beans provide the building blocks of Yin and blood. Energy will begin to rise throughout this phase and movement intensity can increase accordingly; this is the time in your cycle for more intense exercise such as cardio and weight training. You may feel compelled to be more social, follow your internal cues and spend some time in community.
Egg is released from the follicle.
Energy is at it’s peak, take advantage of it. Get out and try something new. Add some warming spices to your meals like cinnamon, cumin, ginger and clove and avoid cold, raw options. Try to keep your uterus warm by avoiding cold water and covering up your midriff.
Luteal phase (begins with ovulation)
Stage 3: Post-ovulatory stage
Yin and blood are at their maximum. A nourishing and stable environment is created in the uterus.
Support your hormone balance and health during this phase by consuming adequate water and adding in essential fatty acids to assist in staving off PMS symptoms. Some good options are chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds. Energy is still high but may begin to wane, follow your natural cues and match your movement choices to your energy.
Stage 4: Pre-menstrual stage
Yang energy increases and Liver Qi moves the blood.
Keep up with water consumption and essential fatty acid sources during this phase. Observe and honor energy downshifts as you approach your period.
The ideal menstrual cycle lasts 28-30 days from the first day of the period until the first day of the next period, though mild variations are totally normal. When cycles become too short, too long, irregular or non-existent, the balance between Yin and Yang energies in the body needs to be addressed.
In Chinese medicine issues like hormonal imbalances, painful periods and anovulation are dealt with by treating the root of the issues. Regular acupuncture treatments, herbal medicine, lifestyle and dietary therapy are all tools that aid in supporting the physiological processes of the menstrual cycle.