As a young woman, I remember many of the older women in my life confiding in me that they’d had debilitating cramps when their cycles started. For some, these cramps and other symptoms recurred through their school years. They were painful enough to send them home from school and work. Chocolate was lauded as a cure-all. I was assured time and again that these uncomfortable symptoms were just par for the course: Just grin and bear it, and expect the occasional missed class or work. If you must, cope with a heating pad and some ice cream.
Chinese medicine, on the other hand, says, “Hey, it doesn’t have to be that way,” and offers an astonishing depth of understanding of women’s health from puberty to beyond menopause.
Chinese medicine views a woman’s cycle (menstruation plus the length of time between periods) as a way to deduce an individual’s overall health. Multiple organ systems and their associated acupuncture meridians are involved in creating a woman’s cycle. These nagging symptoms so many of us women take for granted are considered signs that certain organ systems are out of balance. When these organ systems start to show symptoms during menstruation, our quality of life starts to suffer long before anything becomes a diagnosable illness. How easy a woman’s menstruation remains through her adult years will indicate how easy or difficult perimenopause and menopause will be. Maintaining a healthy menstrual cycle will help perimenopausal years have fewer hot flashes, night sweats and other symptoms we take for granted as part of making the transition to menopause.
The main organ systems responsible for menstruation are the heart, the spleen/pancreas, the liver and the kidney. The organs are a prominent concept in Chinese medicine, which attributes an emotional and cognitive pattern, a tissue structure and various energetic and physical processes to each organ, besides the physiology that we know from Western science.
For example, the heart is in charge of our blood. Amenorrhea or lack of a period, scanty menstrual flow, insomnia and/or feeling anxious around menses are signs the heart meridian needs some extra care. Please note, this does not mean that you have heart disease.
The spleen/pancreas relates to menstruation by holding the blood in the vessels. Signs that the spleen/pancreas is losing ground on holding blood in the vessels are easy bruising and really heavy periods. Other common menstrual symptoms related to a tired spleen/pancreas are bloating, gas, changes in bowel movements and changes in appetite.
The liver dredges the channels and pathways to make them free and clear of any blockages. This is a strange phrase that means when the liver is not able to perform this task, we end up with cramps, clots, very strong bloating, headaches, migraines, breast tenderness and mood swings of all kinds.
The kidney energy relates strongly to sexual maturity, i.e., the start of menstruation and our sex drive. If the kidney energy is tired, you may have long cycles that stretch out for a couple of months between menses, or amenorrhea, as well as low-back pain before or during your period.
Similarly to the attitude around menstruation, our culture tends to neglect postpartum care for new moms. The act of giving birth takes a great deal of effort and physical resources from one’s body. According to Chinese medicine, the first month after giving birth, the new mom should be waited on by her family with nutritious bone broth-based soups laden with vegetables, allowing her to rest up after the demanding work of the birthing process. The relationship between eating foods that provide easily digestible nutrition to rebuild blood supplies and support tendon, ligament and cartilage structural integrity also correlates to supporting proper milk production and balanced emotions.
How physically demanding the birthing process was determines the postpartum nutrition plan and degree of rest the mother needs. A birth that loses a great deal of blood or takes many hours to complete may need more bone broth and, potentially, some blood-building herbal formulas to ensure the mother’s blood volume can return as quickly as possible. In Chinese medicine theory, milk is generated from the blood, so protecting the blood supply protects the ability to produce adequate milk for one’s newborn.
Blood volume also contributes to stable emotions. Anxiousness, worry and postpartum depression have a relationship with blood volume, an adequate amount of which is vital after birth. A woman who has lost a lot of blood but whose body may be managing to produce plenty of milk runs a risk of secretly depleting her blood volume and ending up with stronger emotional swings or lows. This can feel particularly frustrating since there are no outward signs of anything being out of the ordinary.
Blood deficiency, in general, has some subtle signs, such as sallow or pasty-looking skin tone, pale nail beds, pale lips, dry skin and hair, and bruising easily. For some, simple dietary adjustments can overcome postpartum blood deficiency, while, for others, it is advisable to use a stronger intervention of Chinese herbal formulas specifically designed over a few hundred years for postpartum care.
Perimenopause and menopause
The patterns that set up our bodies to experience hot flashes, night sweats, and skin, hair and vaginal dryness during perimenopause and into menopause are often established during our early menstruating years and from inadequate postpartum care for our bodies. By addressing menstrual symptoms such as gas, bloating, pain, mood swings, etc., and taking excellent care during our postpartum days, we can avoid dramatic symptoms later in life. Since we cannot go back in time, if you are already experiencing such symptoms, Chinese medicine looks at identifying which organ system or handful of organ systems are most involved, and treats those symptoms accordingly with acupuncture and herbal treatments.
This is just a small snapshot of how Chinese medicine associates various physical and emotional symptoms to women’s health. The wisdom of Chinese medicine applied to women’s health often emerges from the aforementioned larger concept of the organ systems. Noticing and treating quality-of-life issues enhances our ability to bring our bodies back into ideal health, before our health falls so far out of balance we actually become ill.
To learn more about women’s health and Chinese medicine, I highly recommend working with a licensed acupuncturist or EAMP, as self-diagnosis is often misleading.