How Emotional Health Affects Our Menstrual Cycles
By Dr. Anna Gold
A woman's relationship with her menstrual cycle is intimate. From young adulthood until menopause, she experiences monthly episodes of bleeding. Through culture, she may hear pervasive language vilifying menstruation. Instead of pride, she may associate her period with annoyance or disgust. It’s not uncommon in our society for women to take hormones to stop their menstrual cycles altogether so as to avoid its inconveniences. As a self proclaimed feminist, I unequivocally support widely available birth control. Access to birth control was a game changer for women to take control of their destiny and empower their sexuality. However, as a holistic practitioner, I am perplexed to find most women’s attitude toward their own periods to be one of negativity and misunderstanding.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the spirit of a person, also called Shen, is said to rest in their Heart, the origin of Blood. The Heart commands the circulation of Blood, a concept in TCM that not only means “the red fluid that circulates in the heart, arteries and veins,“ the definition of blood according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but rather a vital substance that nourishes the skin, hair, organs, memory, sleep and emotional well-being. Blood not only delivers physiological nourishment to cells and tissues but when it’s healthy and abundant, expresses itself as joy, resilience and mental stability. In this way, the Heart is regarded as the center of the Mind and Spirit.
In TCM physiology, there is a direct link between the Heart and the Uterus via a channel called the “Bao Mai”, or Uterus Vessel. The “Uterus,” in Chinese medicine, encompasses all the female reproductive organs, including the hormones, ovaries and fallopian tubes. It is an extraordinary organ that shares a close relationship with the Heart and the vital substance it generates, Blood. Every month the Heart Blood descends via the Bao Mai to nourish the uterus so that it can nourish conception. In order for the Bao Mai to be open and unobstructed, and descent of (menstrual) Blood to occur, the Spirit must be open and free-flowing. Since the Heart “rules” the Blood, any emotional upheaval could obstruct this movement.
A healthy menstrual cycle is defined as a 28-day cycle, plus or minus three days. There is little to no spotting. Bleeding arrives on time, without fanfare. Uncomfortable symptoms that are often associated with periods, ie. PMS, low back pain, headache, fatigue, bloating, or loose bowels are indications of imbalance, and should be absent in a healthy cycle. The color of menstrual blood should be bright red, without clots. Patients are often incredulous when I explain how a healthy menstruation presents. They often doubt that it is possible until their own cycles improve.
In a study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 63% to 79% of college students who experienced higher psychosocial stress levels, were found to have irregular and painful periods. There is evidence that stress disrupts reproductive functions and depresses pituitary functions of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Since the pituitary gland releases hormones that regulates sex hormones, this results in decreased luteinizing hormone and dys-regulation of menstrual cycles.
In nearly 20 years of practice, I repeatedly witnessed women’s stresses and their emotional states influencing the experience of their following menstrual cycle. Oftentimes after a month’s cumulation of stress, heartache, anxiety, and emotional turbulence, a woman’s period will manifest as pain, irregularity, spotting, or even a complete lack of bleeding.
I convey to all my patients how blessed we are to have cycles every month, how lucky we are to have the opportunity to build and shed and renew. Our blood is the storehouse for our Spirit and our emotions. Experiences accumulate in our Blood and every month during her fertile years, a woman has the opportunity to let go of those experiences and start anew. Our periods tell us stories about our lives and how we process events we live through. Will we hold on to them and relive them through our pain or do we let them pass and embrace the bleeding so that we can regenerate for new experiences?
You can read more about how to nourish Blood in my previous post, "The Role of Blood in Holistic Health: An East Asian Medicine Perspective."
Stay tuned for my next post where I explain how to interpret your menstrual cycles through TCM diagnosis and offer solutions toward a healthier cycle.