Updated: Jun 11
In honour of women's health week (4 Sept-8 Sept) I decided to kick my butt into gear and start a women's health blog series! I figured it was about time that I focus on some of the health issues that effect women and how Chinese medicine looks at them. This issue will look at the 7-year cycles and the phases during a menstrual cycle, as well as also having a look at a few common conditions experienced by women.
For some unknown reason, our menstrual cycles are not really discussed in our teen years. Like, what is a normal period? Am I meant to bleed for 4 days or 7? Is pain normal? Why do I feel depressed and moody right before my period? The unanswered questions of my youth were all answered once I began studying traditional Chinese medicine!
When we started learning about gynaecological issues at college, one of the very first things we learnt were the 7 year cycles (for women) and the 4 phases during a menstrual cycle. According to TCM theory, every 7 years a women's body will change due to their building (first 4 cycles) and declining (remaining cycles) Jing*. Sounds about right? Ok so if you can wrap your head around the 7 year cycles then the 4 phases will probably make even more sense to you. Did you know that each of the phases during a menstrual cycle is linked with different symptoms? Especially if our body is a bit out of balance. So let's start from the beginning and have a look at how Chinese medicine views what is 'normal' in regards to our uterus's. Hoorah!
Women's 7 Year Cycles
7 years old - This is when our kidney energy is growing, our hair starts to grow longer and stronger and our teeth change. This is when our reproductive system begins to develop.
14 years old - Menstruation begins and a woman is able to have a baby. Early or late menarche can indicate a disharmony within the body.
21 years old - A woman reaches peak fertility at this age. Her teeth are fully developed and her kidney qi has reached a balanced state.
28 years old - From 21 to 28, a women's fertility energy will reach its peak. This is the best time to have children (from a Chinese medicine perspective).
35 years old - Her peak condition will start to decline and she will develop wrinkles on her face.
42 years old - A women's physical energy and fertility energy starts to decline and it becomes difficult to fall pregnant.
49 years old - Menstruation dries up, conception is no longer possible and her physique turns old and feeble. (Please keep in mind that these were written when the mean age of a women was probably around 55 years old).
All sounds about right? Now lets take a closer look at our periods. Our cycle is determined by the ebb and flow of our Kidney-yin and Kidney-yang. When our period begins it is said that yang decreases from its maximum and yin increases from its minimum. And then at ovulation it switches. Yin has reached its maximum and starts to decrease while yang is at its minimum and begins to increase.
Phase 1 - (day 1-4) This phase is characterised by downward movement of Qi and Blood (hence the bleeding part). This is when Yang decrease and Yin begins to increase. If your period arrives too early, too late, is painful, scanty or heavy, acupuncture may be able to help as Chinese medicine views these as symptoms of a disharmony in the body
Phase 2 - (day 5-13) Blood and Yin are pretty empty at this time. This is the time to establish a good basis for a normal/regular menstrual cycle (acupuncture anyone?). During this time our Jing matures and nourishes the Uterus, and the follicles and promotes the growth of the endometrium
Phase 3 - (day 14-26) Ovulation time baby! Yin is at its maximum. The cervix produces viscous, transparent secretion that indicates the impending ovulation. This is probably the best time to try and conceive
Phase 4 - (day 27-28) This is when Qi and Blood are building in preparation for the period. PMS can appear at this time and is also another area acupuncture can help with from the view point of either moving the stuck Liver Qi or nourishing a deficiency.
If there is pain, headaches, moodiness, or delays/early arrivals at any of these phases then we know something is up and needs to be addressed. Menstrual phases are important in diagnosis of TCM conditions because if, at any stage of the phases, something doesn't do what it should do/when it should do it, then we know how to treat it. That's why your acupuncturist will ask so many (personal) questions about your menstruation. And from there, we can develop a treatment plan and work on supporting the specific area of disharmony.
Here are a few common disorders that women can experience. They will be covered more thoroughly in future articles, but for now here is a brief overview.
Dysmenorrhoea - so this term is the Western term for painful periods. In TCM, painful periods can be caused by emotions (stress), external cold and dampness, overwork, chronic illness, excess sexual activity and childbirth. So basically pretty standard western world living for women.
According to a literature review, 'stimulation of acupuncture points appears to offer relief from primary dysmenorrhoea'.
Trouble falling pregnant - This is a tricky one. There are so many factors involved in falling pregnant for both men and women! Some possible causes, from the TCM perspective, include constitutional weakness, overwork, excessive physical work, becoming sexually active too early, irregular diet and invasion of cold. Now don't freak out if you think some of these apply to you. Acupuncture and lifestyle changes can assist in the 'falling pregnant' process. That's the beauty of Chinese medicine, it will look at the whole person and attempt to correct whatever disharmony is present with acupuncture, diet and lifestyle advice and sometimes, Chinese herbs.
Pre-menstrual syndrome - Oh the ever delightful PMS. Almost every female friend I have seems to have experienced PMS at some point. We all joke about it and accept it as part of being a women, but TCM actually views it as a menstrual disorder and can assist in treating it. PMS is usually a sign of something deeper going on in the body, most likely stress, but also, irregular diet (like excessive consumption of dairy or greasy foods), and overwork.
Menopause - The big M. Menopause is the complete/permanent cessation of menstruation. This usually occurs between 48 and 55 years old with the average age being about 51 in industrialised countries. The decline of Kidney-Essence is the main culprit of menopausal issues. The best way to help decrease the symptoms of menopause is prevention. Women in their 30's should try to make sure they are living a relatively healthy life to help decrease the severity of their potential menopausal symptoms. This includes not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol, tea or coffee, avoiding excess greasy foods and dairy, dealing with stress, and not over working. Acupuncture can also been found to be effective at helping with hot flushes and insomnia associated with menopause.
Diet and Lifestyle advice
Making changes to lifestyle and diet can have a huge impact on our uterus's and all that goes with having one. Now I know the first suggestion may be met with some resistance, especially the coffee part. But it's all part of the TCM process and hopefully you will notice some benefits from avoiding some of these delicious but addictive products. I've given up coffee before for a month just to see how hard/easy it would be... Let's just say that first week I probably wasn't the most delightful person to be around but it did get easier.
Avoid alcohol, coffee, refined sugars and dairy products - HORMONE DISRUPTERS. That is to say, these substances can disrupt our hormones and can have negative effects on our reproductive system
Include plenty of warm, cooked foods in your diet. If our Spleen and Stomach aren't functioning properly the source of Qi and Blood will be affected
Avoid raw, cold foods. Think salads, cold juices, raw veggies. Big No No's when dealing with menstrual issues. (In most cases that is. Don't worry if your acupuncturists recommends something different)
Get active. Walk for 30 minutes at least 3 times per week. Apart from having about a million beneficial effects, from the TCM perspective, walking is good for our Spleen and improves our digestive system.
Book in for acupuncture. I bet that recommendation surprised you. There is evidence that acupuncture may be beneficial for menopausal hot flushes, perimenopausal & postmenopausal insomnia, dysmenorrhoea, induction of labour, menopausal syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome, postnatal depression, primary ovarian insufficiency, and uterine fibroids
As always, I recommend booking in to see your acupuncturist and have a chat about your reproductive health.
*Jing aka vital energy aka Essence, is the basis for all growth, development and sexuality.
The Definition of "Jing" - Essence. (2017). Acufinder.com. Retrieved 14 August 2017, from https://www.acufinder.com/Acupuncture+Information/Detail/The+Definition+of+Jing+-+Essence
Centre, A. (2017). Women's 7-Years Life Cycle - Almond Wellness Centre. Almond Wellness Centre. Retrieved 14 August 2017, from http://www.oztcm.com.au/womens-7-years-life-cycle/
Menopause and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). (2017). Wildcrafted.com.au. Retrieved 14 August 2017, from http://www.wildcrafted.com.au/Articles/Alternative_Medicine/Menopause_and_Traditional_Chinese_Medicine.html
TCM Views on the Natural Aging Process. (2017). Shen-nong.com. Retrieved 14 August 2017, from http://www.shen-nong.com/eng/lifestyles/tcmrole_aging_process.html
Cunningham, S., & Tan, D. (2011). Dysmenorrhoea and acupuncture: a review of the literature. Nursing Standard, 25(44), 39-47. http://dx.doi.org/10.7748/ns2011.07.25.44.39.c8613
Shen-nong.com. (2017). Chinese Dietary Advice for Women with Menstrual Problems. [online] Available at: http://www.shen-nong.com/eng/exam/specialties_womenpms_premenstrual_dietary.html [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].
Acupuncture.org.au. (2017). Acupuncture Evidence Project. [online] Available at: http://www.acupuncture.org.au/OURSERVICES/Publications/AcupunctureEvidenceProject.aspx [Accessed 23 Aug. 2017].
Disclaimer: I am a registered Acupuncturist and this blog reflects my own personal opinions and research. It should in no way be used as a means to self diagnose and it is my responsibility as a health practitioner to recommend that you seek out a professional who is qualified to diagnose your condition.