Last week I introduced the concept of death cycles on the Instagram feed. In a nutshell, a life cycle is a cycle an organism follows from birth to the point they reproduce and their offspring begin their own life cycle. A death cycle follows an organism through all the processes of birth, life, death and potential rebirth.
The handy thing about death cycles is that since the year is its own death cycle we can use it as a guide. Spring is birth, summer is growth, fall is decline and winter is death. The unique thing about winter is that it’s the season that contains all the things we, as a society, fear, are ashamed of, or hate.
Cold, darkness, old age, labor, and menstruation.
When you work with the seasons and death cycles, you learn that decline is a part of life and it’s usually a healthy part of the process. Trees wouldn’t flourish in the summer if they didn’t rest in the winter, the day doesn’t happen without the night and we wouldn’t continue our reproductive cycle without healthy menstruation.
Have you been told your entire life that your period is gross, something you shouldn’t talk about, something shameful or even, sinful?
What would happen if you saw it has a healthy sign of ovulation and embraced it as a time of rest? My bet is that it would be life changing and if you’re interested you should definitely read on.
Back to sex ed
Most of the visitors to this website menstruate, will one day menstruate or have menstruated in their lives. But I’m still going back to sex ed. Why? Because things like this exist:
Women don’t need tampons because…
And if kegels don’t do it, you should just hold it…like pee.
And don’t forget, the omnipresent buzzword “toxins” because women are dirty
The scariest parts about this is not only do men out there think this, there are women who menstruate out there who think this too. Women who think they’re disgusting, out of control of their own bodies, and that a perfectly natural process is not only something shameful but a “sign of toxicity.”
What is menstruation, anyway?
Menstruation is the process of shedding the endometrium. This is the lining of the uterus that builds throughout a woman’s cycle to provide nutrition for an implanted embryo. If an embryo implants, it begans the production of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) which signals the body to support a pregnancy.
If at about 12 to 16 days post ovulation HCG isn’t being produced, the body downregulates the production of progesterone and we shed the lining.
The lining is released through the opening of our uterus, called the cervix. The menstrual fluid travels through our vagina and out of our body.
That’s it. It’s not the body shedding “toxins”. It’s not a punishment for the sins of womankind. We can’t slam our pelvic floor shut and prevent the flow until we get to the nearest bathroom.
And yet, like with the ends of most death cycles we treat it with fear and disgust.
Meet your Red Dragon
The menstrual cycle is a complicated mess of hormones, yin, yang, jing, and blood so let’s narrow our focus to the “winter” of the cycle – the premenstrual phase through the end of bleeding.
The Taoist term for menstruation is the “Red Dragon”, indicating the Taoists attributed magical properties to the process. This is a long ways away from the shame and fear that we have towards menstruation today. In fact, the Taoists went so far as to consider the Red Yin (the menstrual blood itself) the jing of the Earth – the Mother of all things.
This period of our month used to be venerated as ultimate femininity and many cultures respected it as a time of rest for women. And it’s high time you do the same as well.
If you need a refresher on Chinese medical terms, check out Acupuncture 101
When the ovaries release an egg at ovulation, a rise in basal body temperature marks the conversion of yin to yang. The increase of progesterone, a steroid hormone produced by the corpus luteum, warms the body due to its yang nature. Progesterone signals the uterus to increase blood flow and build the endometrial lining to nourish a potentially fertilized egg.
By Day 21 the corpus luteum is mature so it begins to deteriorate and its production of progesterone drops. If a fertilized egg implants, its production of another yang hormone – human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) kicks up progesterone another notch and the lining is maintained and the pregnancy continues. But if there is no increase in progesterone, our body sheds the lining.
This shedding of our uterine lining is menstruation.
Enzymes break down the lining and it is discharged through the cervix and flows out the vagina.
Once progesterone drops, eventually estrogen drops as well and somewhere between 28 and 30 days of a cycle, we bleed again. The day we begin bleeding is Day 1. Note that this isn’t spotting, which is a premenstrual symptom.
The next three days are a “hormonal zero point” where no hormone is dominant. Eventually, luteinizing hormone begins to increase, the seed of yang being born within yin, bleeding stops and we move into the follicular phase.
Natural Menstrual Care
The gift of living with the rhythms of nature is not only does it connect us with the world around us, but it taps into the world within us. We start to hear the quiet voice that tells us what we need and the more we listen, the louder it becomes.
I am not the first to make the correlation between menstruation and winter. Randine Lewis of The Infertility Cure wrote:
“In the same way the season of winter or the period between midnight and dawn is a time of rest, menstruation is the reproductive system’s period of rest.”Randine Lewis, The Infertility Cure, Page 66
The same recommendations for seasonal living in the winter can be used all year round for care during menstruation. Rest, eat well, meditate; this is a time to take care of yourself and honor a healthy and natural process, and in doing so, honor yourself.
The Healthy Cycle
A woman’s menstrual cycle is the best indicator of her health. Every single pattern is represented in her symptoms and flow.
A healthy flow lasts approximately 4-6 days with no spotting. There is no cramping and minimal discomfort, minimal to no clotting and the color should be red. While emotions tend to be higher when liver qi is more active, emotions are manageable and not negatively impacting life.
Whereas the common period is emotional and painful. Do you see the distinction I’m making here between healthy and common?
The period we see in the media and are told is normal and healthy is a liver qi stagnation period. It’s characterized by anger or irritability before and during the cycle, swollen breasts, headaches or even hormonal migraines, clots, purplish blood, bloating, and constipation with occasional bouts of diarrhea.
Many Americans have some form of the liver qi stagnation pattern because we love stress. We love to be Type A go-getters who don’t take breaks. Women have the benefit of seeing its impact every month and have the opportunity to do something about it before it becomes a serious health concern.
The first thing I’m going to recommend is rest. Your premenstrual period and your bleeding is your cycle’s winter. Generally, if you follow any of the recommendations from the winter seasonal living post, you’re going to be doing the right thing
Drink cozy beverages, stay under your blankets, and wear comfortable clothes. Light candles and read books. Hang out with small groups of friends over a nice dinner of comfort food in someone’s home.
Self-care isn’t all green smoothies and training for marathons and this is definitely not the time for that. Eat heartier, warmer foods to help build your blood and yin and lay off the exercise, especially in the first 1-3 days of your cycle.
2. Stay warm
This ties into some of the more restrictive recommendations in Chinese Medicine – “Do not wash your hair during your period,” “avoid the cold air and any drafts”, “avoid cold foods.” While the basis of these is to protect your qi, blood, and yang we usually live in insulated homes with heating. This isn’t the 12th century.
Avoiding cold foods is covered in “drink cozy beverages and eat comfort foods” above. Raw foods like salad and juices are high in vitamins but low in the building blocks necessary to rebuild your system during and after menstruation – mainly fats and proteins. The moving properties of coffee, tea, and many warm herbal teas helps to move stagnant qi and blood, reducing pain.
Avoiding cold air and drafts is harder to explain but it’s still important. When you have a tight, painful muscle you can do two things: apply an ice pack or a heating pad. How do you determine which one to use?
An ice pack will produce analgesia and reduce the pain in an area temporarily. It does this by restricting blood and lymph flow, which is useful for things like swelling.
A heating pad can also help with pain, but it does it by treating the cause. Heat increases blood flow in an area, pushing out metabolic wastes, bringing in healthy oxygenated blood and softening muscles.
Cold stops qi from moving the blood, heat moves qi and blood. The one thing we want to make sure to do during your period is to keep your blood and qi moving, especially if you already have stagnant liver qi.
As for not washing your hair, you can imagine how in the old days without heating a wet head was asking for feeling cold throughout your body. Either invest in a shower cap and use that for a couple days (if you want to be super careful) or make sure to dry your hair right away.
3. Use moxa
Moxibustion, or the burning of mugwort wool, is one of the main pillars of Chinese medicine. Where needles are an excellent way to reduce or cool the body, moxa is primarily used to warm it.
The way you use moxa is as unique to you as the herbs chosen for your condition or the acupuncture points chosen for your treatment. If you are interested in how to use moxa, schedule an appointment.
Your Red Dragon and You
Observing your symptoms and taking care of yourself during the few days you bleed is an amazing first step. Overcoming the societal stigma surrounding a woman’s cycle is no mean feat, but it is just the beginning.
I encourage you to head to your local second-hand bookstore and pick up Toni Weschler’s “Taking Charge of Your Fertility,” Even if you aren’t trying to prevent pregnancy or get pregnant, learning your own body’s rhythms through observing your cervical mucus, basal body temperature and more is an amazing way to learn how to accept yourself.
If you would like to learn more about temping, check out this blog post.
Don’t be ashamed of who you are, ladies.
Need help taming the dragon?
Resources and links
Death cycles post on the Instagram feed
The Infertility Cure by Randine Lewis
Taking Charge of your Fertility by Toni Weschler
How to Get Started with Fertility Awareness – an introduction to temping
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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