How to optimise your self-care, diet and exercise changes in each phase of the menstrual cycle.
People who menstruate undergo hormonal fluctuations every month. Through each phase of the menstrual cycle, our internal bodies change, and we can feel this through our energy levels, physical symptoms, sociability, appetite and mood. It only makes sense that we listen to these changes and live in harmony with them. Living in accordance with your cycle is an amazing way to support your hormonal health, optimise your lifestyle habits and promote presence in your body.
How does Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) understand the menstrual cycle?
TCM understands the menstrual cycle as a complex ebb and flow of the Yin and Yang energies, as well as Blood and Qi (life force; energy). Yin and Yang are the fundamental basis of all life, and the balance of these determines one’s health. Yin is related to night time, cooling, moistening and stillness, while Yang is related to day time, warming, drying and movement. Similarly, Blood nourishes and supports bodily structures (more Yin is quality) while Qi supports bodily functions and mechanisms (more Yang in quality). When these four parts are in balance, our cycles should look like this:
- Cycle length of 26-32 days
- 3-5 day medium bleed
- 30-80 mls bright red rich blood (full pad = 5ml/ full tampon = 10ml/full cup 15-30ml/ full period undies = 15-20ml)
- No spotting, period starts straight away
- No bloating, PMS, sore breasts, pain etc.
- Clear signs of ovulation (days 12-20)
- Minimum 11 day luteal phase (ovulation – day before period)
The ebbs and flows of Yin, Yang, Blood and Qi in Chinese Medicine are very similar to the hormonal fluctuations understood by Western Medicine. In both medicines, changes that occur in the cycle that do not line up with the above list are seen as imbalances. Which means that if you, say, get horrible period pain every month, this is not normal and is actually a sign that something is out of balance.
Promoting natural balance through cyclical living
The Menstrual phase: ‘Blood phase’
This phase of the menstrual cycle occurs from day 1 of full bleeding. Our pituitary gland in our brain begins producing luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates the growth of small sacs in the ovaries, known as follicles. Our uterine lining sloughs off and is lost through the menstrual bleed.
- Blood is Yin in nature, and therefore we need to support our Yin through promoting stillness and nourishment. Think: cozy, warm and restful.
- Self-care: Take it easy and enjoy activities such as reading, journalling, meditating and cooking.
- Exercise: If you feel up to exercising, opt for more gentle activity that won’t deplete you. Yin or Restorative Yoga, stretching and walking is ideal.
- Diet: Drink lots of tea and water during your period, avoiding ice-cold or refrigerated drinks. Eat plenty of cooked and warming foods like soups, stews and bone broths. Ensure your eat plenty of protein and healthy fats such as beans, meats and seafoods. You can also include TCM blood-stimulating foods like ginger, turmeric and apple cider vinegar.
- Keep yourself warm: wear socks, stay cozy and keep a hot water bottle on your tummy, which may help promote blood circulation.
The Follicular phase: ‘Yin phase’
This phase of the menstrual cycle occurs from the start of the period until ovulation. The follicles we produced in our menstrual phase grow until one comes the most dominant. Our uterine lining, or endometrium, also thickens up.
- After menstruation, we focus on Blood and Yin nourishment, and can enjoy the increase in energy that comes with this.
- Self-care: we begin to feel more extroverted and energetic at this time of the month. It’s time to get out there: go on dates, make new friends, have more sex, try new things! This is a great time to get new projects together, focus on self development and take advantage of creativity.
- Exercise: This is the time to get those gains in the gym! Lift heavy and focus on endurance, your body can handle it and recover better at this time.
- Diet: Eat generous amounts of protein, fat, folic acid and B12. Think beans, fish, eggs, meat, cooked leafy greens, berries, avocado, tahini and nuts/ and seeds. Avoid alcohol, coffee, smoking and sugary, processed foods.
The Ovulatory phase: ‘Yang phase’
Ovulation generally occurs around day 11-16 of the menstrual cycle, NOT only day 14 which is a common misconception. Ovulation is affected by many factors, such as cycle length and our physical and mental health. The dominant follicle mentioned in the previous phase releases an egg after a surge in LH occurs. Yin and fluid levels are at their peak, which brings about stretchy (egg-white consistency) fertile mucus.
- During this phase of the menstrual cycle, we transition from more Yin energy in to Yang, so we can live in a more Yang manner!
- Self-care: It’s time to bring your creative projects to light! The best time of the month for presentations, work events and hosting. Your libido will be high too. If you’re trying to fall pregnant, this is the time to get busy!
- Exercise: begin to get a little gentler while still riding on that energy high. It’s a perfect time for swimming, yoga, jogs, lighter weight lifting and HIIT.
- Diet: begin to eat lighter meals with lots of cruciferous veggies and fibre to flush out excess estrogen. Enjoy warming spices like cinnamon, cloves, cumin, cardamom, cayenne and ginger to nourish the Yang. Limit cold and raw foods or drinks.
The Luteal Phase: ‘Qi Phase’
The egg released during ovulation now becomes the corpus luteum, a temporary hormone-secreting structure (secreting progesterone and estrogen). The corpus luteum will break down if pregnancy has not occurred around ovulation.
- This is a very Yang time of the month: basal body temperature increases with all the extra warming Yang energy, and if you do become pregnant, Yang is needed here to support and hold the fetus. As we draw closer to the period, we promote Qi flow, which is impeded with stress, frustration, resentment and bottling up of emotions.
- Self-care: focus on emotional release. Feeling irritable, upset and/or depressive are signs that you need to slow down. Prioritise rest and alone time; get in to breath work, journalling, meditation. Book that massage, acupuncture or facial session and take care of yourself.
- Exercise: decrease vigorous exercise and opt for low-impact pilates, yoga, barre, body weight exercise or stretching. Many people naturally begin to feel a lack of strength post-ovulation, so listen to your body.
- Diet: You may notice that your appetite is going a little haywire and this is because your metabolic rate is also increased, meaning you can up your caloric load (this doesn’t mean eat that entire block of Cadbury!!). Instead, opt for hearty meals, slow-cooked meats, stews, soups and broths with plenty of root veggies. Include green and/or pungent foods like basil, fennel, garlic, ginger, vinegar, rosemary dill etc, as well as magnesium and zinc-rich foods like nuts and seeds.
Our periods are our fifth vital sign. When we listen to our bodies and the symptoms that come up during our cycles, we begin to see the things we need to work on. If you suddenly had an excruciatingly painful, emotional period one month, think to yourself: what has my self-care been like this cycle? How have I been feeling emotionally? Have I been eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol? Have I been over exercising?
Having this presence in your life and with your body can be a game-changer for your hormonal health. However, natural changes do take time to come in to effect, so be patient with yourself. If you need extra support, acupuncture and Chinese Herbs work cyclically to support your bodies’ changes at each phase to promote hormonal balance and happy periods.
Book your acupuncture sessions with Kiah to get back in to balance naturally. Navigate to heading ‘Acupuncture > Acupuncture Initial’ and select Kiah McGowan.