Ayurvedic Approach to Healthy Menstrual Cycles
by Claudia Ward, L.Ac
Cultural beliefs that women are unpredictable, dangerous, and too emotional or fragile for certain social roles date back at least to ancient Greece. During the Great Depression Dr. Robert Frank, an American gynecologist, published an article, in which described what he called “premenstrual tension”. He wrote about some of his women patients who complained of being tense and irritable, crying more easily than usual, and engaging in what he termed “foolish and ill considered actions” just prior to menstruation. He further talked about the ill effects that intellectual exertion might have on the menstrual cycle. Very convenient discovery, indeed, a medical (i.e., scientific) reason why women should stay out of the workforce and leave to men any of the few jobs that were available.
Women in our modern world work through the month, no matter what. Double-income families, high costs of living, multi-tasking – modern women have learned to ignore their natural rhythms. In the past women would gather during their monthly cycles and have time to rest and meditate. As it is, women go through many more menstrual cycles during their lives than did women of earlier days. In the past a woman went through menarche near the end of her teens, quickly became pregnant, nursed for 2-4 years after each pregnancy, during which time she would normally not menstruate. Modern women, however, go through menarche earlier (higher estrogen levels due to artificial light, chemicals and pollution, and a richer diet), they usually deliver only 1-2 children which they nurse for a relatively short time. They therefore go through many more menstrual cycles, the hormonal swings of which can cause a wide range of imbalances and complaints.
Understanding the Cleansing Cycle:
There is a general consensus among Ayurvedic physicians, who visit from India , as to why the excessive amount of female disorders plague the West and not the East, and it has much to do with honoring the cycle itself.
In India, the menstrual cycle is a highly respected cycle that is an expression of the female connectedness to the cycles of the moon. This cycle regulates the tides, migrations, mating times, and, of course, the twenty-eight day cycle of menstruation.
Menses is a natural time of cleansing and rejuvenation, traditionally accompanied by a time of rest or light duty. It is understood that in traditional cultures there were extended families that supported women during their monthly cycle and through menstruation. Here in the West, this is not the case. However, this does not mean that modern working women cannot respect this time of the month, taking a lighter load or scheduling around their time of the month.
Basically, the Ayurvedic recommendation is to act in accord with how one feels. Ignoring this cycle will often lead to a great number of premenstrual and menstrual complaints. If there is some desire to rest during menstruation and this is not provided, then symptoms of some sort are sure to come. This resting is not a sign of weakness: it is a time of pulling back, recharging the batteries, so that one can later engage in more dynamic activity. Some of the Ayurvedic doctors comment that the menstrual cycle and monthly cleansing is one of the factors that lead to the generally longer life span of women.
A healthy menstrual cycle is essential to a woman’s health and well-being. Most women experience PMS or menstrual complaints at some point in their lives. Wide hormone swings can dramatically affect the delicate balance of the body leading to a myriad of complaints associated with PMS and their monthly cycle. The number of complaints is even more likely to increase as women have been exposed to an unprecedented amount of toxic environmental chemicals which, once inside the human body, have the ability to mimic estrogen. These environmental estrogens come from birth control pills, pollutants, food additives, pesticides, plastics, and many other human-made sources. These xeno-estrogens (foreign estrogens) lead to a relative estrogen-dominance which creates a myriad of symptoms and conditions, including infertility, fibroids, cancer, premature aging, PMS and menstrual problems. We are the first generation subject to estrogen dominance, so we are moving through uncharted territory.
Recommendations for a Healthy Menstrual Cycle:
Women should never drink any ice-cold beverages before and during menstruation or swim in cold water. Cold causes stagnation in the body and will exacerbate any menstrual problems. The diet before and during the cycle should be light, foods should be nourishing, warm, for example, lightly steamed vegetables, well-cooked grains, lots of leafy greens and green herbs such as basil, cilantro, or parsley. Spices such as fennel, coriander, turmeric, cardamom and saffron are wonderful to enhance digestion and alleviate PMS symptoms. Many women have food cravings during PMS, and the cravings usually focus on sweets and snacks such as ice cream, chocolate and potato chips. Eating complex carbohydrates is probably the best way to ward off those food cravings. These foods are a good source of fiber, which helps to clear excess estrogen from your body. High levels of estrogen have been shown to contribute to PMS. Also, research has found that high-carbohydrate foods actually relieve the psychological symptoms of tension, anxiety and mood swings that accompany PMS.
Good sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, potatoes, corn and legumes. But remember, it takes at least two hours for the carbohydrate high to “kick in;” plan your eating and snacking accordingly. Sugar, alcohol and caffeine should absolutely be avoided. Walking, deep breathing, warm baths, massaging the abdomen with warm sesame oil, drinking fennel tea or ginger tea will help alleviate many symptoms. Taking mild laxatives like Triphala for about two days before the scheduled start of menstruation, or eating stewed apples will help with constipation.
Ayurveda looks at individuals differently, depending upon their respective body type of Vata, Pitta, or Kapha. There are distinct patterns of Vata, Pitta and Kapha PMS.
Mood swings and anxiety, nervous tension, depression, insomnia, forgetfulness, constipation, light amount of flow, menstrual pain/cramps, backaches, extended length of period with dark, clotted flow; irregularity of periods or amenorrhea (absence of menstruation).
Avoid cold and raw foods. Instead, stick to soups, rice, and cooked vegetables. Avoid exposure to wireless devices and computers.
Irritability and anger, sweet cravings, increased appetite, headache (especially migraine), excessive body heat or sweating, diarrhea, skin rashes/acne, excessive menstrual bleeding, increased frequency of periods, bright red flow.
Avoid foods that are hot and spicy, avoid alcohol and caffeine. Do not engage in excessive exercise and have regular meals.
Weight gain, breast tenderness, fluid retention, abdominal bloating, acne, stiffness in back, achy joints, pale, mucousy menstrual flow.
Skip dairy products and fried or oily foods, such as nut butters.
In general those with a Vata imbalance get the best results from rest, meditation and a regular routine. Those with a Pitta imbalance respond best to monthly internal cleansing, and those with a Kapha imbalance find that herbal supplements, exercise and a lighter diet have the best effect.
Regular yoga practice helps prevent PMS symptoms in three ways. First, it releases endorphins, the body’s natural mood-elevating compounds. Second, it calms the central nervous system and increases the flow of oxygenated blood to the reproductive organs. Third, it eases stress and encourages deep relaxation, which further mutes the symptoms of PMS. During menstruation inverted postures and vigorous asanas should be avoided and restorative poses should be favored.
With the tremendous growth of industry over the past 100 years, thousands of toxic chemicals have been introduced into our food, air, drinking water, and almost every manufactured product. As a result, we are exposed to a potentially huge toxic overload during our lifetime. Regular Panchakarma cleanses (one to four times a year) help the body eliminate toxins and rejuvenate, strengthen, and balance it.
Panchakarma offers the most powerful treatments for removing toxins and balancing the body/mind. The Panchakarma program consists of a specific cleansing diet enhanced by daily warm oil massages, steam sauna, mild herbal enemas, herbalized body scrubs and many more individualized treatments.
There is no reason for the monthly cycle to be uncomfortable. A woman’s life should be filled with joy and bliss every moment, including during the menstrual cycle. Just taking a few little steps to create balance will have a profound effect on body and mind.
About the Author
She specializes in nutrition, based on the principles of Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine and Western medical research. Her treatments focus on Ayurvedic therapies, detox cleanses, acupuncture, autoimmune diseases, women’s health, and chronic pain management.
Claudia combines acupuncture, therapeutic massage, cupping, Ayurvedic therapies, reflexology, essential oils, and herbal recommendations in her work.