Holistic Menstrual Health and Wellbeing
by Lara Owen
We are told implicitly that we “just have to grin and bear it”, to suck it up and take a painkiller or ignore inconveniences like spotting. But in actuality, “normal” menstrual symptoms can be debilitating, they indicate underlying imbalances, and they can be remedied. They are also a great personal awareness tool and act as a monthly check-in for our overall physical and mental wellbeing.
Eastern medicines such as traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine are better at understanding the holistic picture of the menstrual cycle, and recognise that healthy and relatively symptom-free menstruation is both attainable and is an important indicator of health. Naturopathy also looks more holistically at the body and gives ways of understanding a more complete picture of menstrual health.
This holistic approach, looking at menstrual symptoms as clusters that include a psychological correlation, comes out of my study and clinical practice of traditional Chinese medicine supported by study and training in several wisdom traditions, psychotherapy, conventional medical anatomy, physiology and gynecology, and over three decades of consulting with women on their menstrual wellbeing. All these influences have helped me clarify and understand the character types and life situations that go along with commonly experienced menstrual symptoms and how these tend to appear with other symptoms that are all speaking the same story.
The character types I describe here indicate your probable tendency, but anyone can experience any of these symptom clusters, especially in the early and late years of menstruating (teens and forties/fifties) when our hormones are in flux. After childbirth is another vulnerable time, as well as after coming off hormonal contraception.
THREE COMMON MENSTRUAL SYMPTOM CLUSTERS
These are the types of “minor” menstrual disturbances that aren’t usually seen in Western medicine as clinically significant and don’t fall into a diagnostic category, but that may cause considerable discomfort and that have implications for long-term wellbeing.
Often the only remedy offered by conventional medicine is hormonal medication, which for these complaints may mask the underlying issue. These symptoms can indicate health vulnerabilities that may get worse as you get older, so it’s good to take care of them now.
The three common symptom clusters I’m going to look at here are related to Bleeding Too Much, Bleeding Too Little, and Bleeding Irregularly.
Bleeding Too Much
One or more of the following symptoms: short cycle (less than 26 days); fresh blood spotting in between periods (especially after ovulation); heavy bleeding; clots. (Not including AUB, Abnormal Uterine Bleeding, which indicates a serious condition, or spotting related to endometriosis.)
Likely Accompanying Symptom Cluster: Feeling the cold. Lethargy and fatigue. Either minimal/no period pain or strong sharp pain when passing clots and when blood flow is strong. Sub-fertility and tendency to miscarry. Insomnia. Anxiety.
Explanation: Counter-intuitively, bleeding too much usually results from DEFICIENCY. A short cycle (less than 26 days) is linked with not producing enough progesterone in the luteal phase (which runs from ovulation to the onset of the period) to hold the uterine lining (the endometrium, which you will begin to release around day 28 as menstruation) in place, so you release it early. Women with short cycles can be prone to spotting from mid-cycle on, and to miscarriage. The production of progesterone does a close dance with the function of the thyroid, and when deficient they share the symptoms of feeling the cold and feeling tired. Progesterone manufacture also has a relationship with the hormones of the adrenal glands: too much caffeine and stress can lead to “adrenal burnout” which affects progesterone production. (When bleeding is really heavy and persistent it is usually due to estrogen dominance and may indicate the presence of a fibroid or other problem. If the bleeding is heavy and persistent you MUST get checked out by your doctor, as you may be anaemic from blood loss, and you may have a serious underlying condition causing the bleeding.)
Associated Emotions: Free-floating anxiety. Overwhelm. Feeling stressed. Fear. Panic.
Associated Character Type: Sensitive, psychic, and over-giving. Puts others before self, can have money/energy resource problems through expending time and energy looking after others, often for free. “Too sensitive for this world”, so can struggle to hold down regular job. Low tolerance/resilience for relationship stress and workplace demands. Low boredom threshold. Tendency to have weak boundaries and “leaky” energy.
Consider: If you tend to give more than you have, and neglect to look after your own needs. If you are biased against self-care, and find it easier to focus on the needs of others. If you worry that you are being selfish when you say no.
Remedy: Step back, take your time, and consider your options before acting. Minimise adrenal stimulation. Get to bed early.
Keywords: Meditate. Be.
Bleeding Too Little
One or more of the following symptoms: long cycle (more than 32 days); scanty bleeding; brown spotting; missing periods.
Likely Accompanying Symptom Cluster: Constipation. Headache. Dull, dragging period pain. Congested skin/acne.
Explanation: The most common cause of bleeding too little and too late is CONGESTION. This symptom cluster is highly related to emotional suppression, which either causes or is caused by a slowing down and congestion of eliminative processes in the body. Acute grief can stop periods entirely, especially when associated with shock. Chronic grief, anger, frustration and resentment can delay bleeding. These suppressed feelings are connected with stagnation of energy and blood. Congestion of the bowel can slow down all body clearing processes especially in the pelvis. While there may be some hormonal involvement, in its common and mild form, delayed or scanty menstruation is less a hormonal issue than a congestion issue. (Missing periods frequently, or having no periods at all (amenorrhea), is a serious condition that is a hormonal issue and is caused by not ovulating due to insufficient oestrogen production, for example because of low body fat, ageing, or emotional shock. If you stop menstruating for more than two months, and you are not menopausal, please go to your doctor. Long-term failure to ovulate during the fertile years is bad for your health.)
Associated Emotions: Resentment. Grief. Frustration.
Associated Character Type: Stoical. Practical. Stubborn. Reliable. Materially creative and capable. Able to say no, but sometimes inappropriately as a kneejerk resistance. May feel you have to “hold up the world”. To cope you hold on, suppress, and contract. Self-protective/defensive.
Consider: If your thoughts often focus on resentment, frustration, or grief. Congestion can happen in anyone during a challenging life phase, when there has been too much going on to fully absorb and process.
Remedy: Take time to gently tune into your emotions and your body feelings every day. Respect them as an innate part of your humanity. Listen to what they are telling you. If you still feel emotionally blocked, seek out a good therapist or counsellor who can help you unlock your feelings.
Keywords: Cry. Move. Communicate.
One or more of the following symptoms: Erratic length of cycle. Erratic amount of blood flow. Erratic length of bleeding time. Other erratic symptoms associated with the period. You find it hard to know when your period will start and how much it will require in terms of time out and self-care.
Likely Accompanying Symptom Cluster: Mood swings. Irregularity of sleep, appetite, and bowel movements.
Explanation: The usual cause of irregularity is, you’ve guessed it, IRREGULARITY! We live in a world governed by cycles: daily, monthly, annually, orchestrated by the movement of the Earth relative to the Sun, and of the Moon relative to the Earth. Our bodies are highly responsive and related to these cycles, and evolved in concert with them. Modern life with artificial lighting and 24/7 availability of information and entertainment allows us and encourages us to live outside of the cycles human beings lived with for millennia. This can greatly disturb our physical and mental functioning, and this disturbance can show up particularly in the menstrual cycle.
Associated Emotions: Up and down. Touchiness. Confusion. Sense of life as chaotic.
Associated Character Type: Inspired. Responsive. Communicative. Eager. Intelligent. Flashes of brilliance. Good at working in teams and with words. Intellectually creative.
Consider: How much you value and can live within the constraints of having a physical body.
Remedy: Tune into your body every day. Respect its needs. Honour your creativity, which may not necessarily manifest in obvious or conventional ways. Give your days a soft and flexible but enduring and wholesome structure. Commit to regular exercise in a way that brings you sensory pleasure. Watch for the New and Full Moons and acknowledge the daily, monthly and annual cycles. Let yourself relax in the evening and get to bed at a decent hour. Eat regularly. Watch for “missing out” syndrome and only do what you realistically have the time and energy for.
Keywords: Relax. Breathe.
This analysis is a learning tool intended to help you understand more about a holistic mind/body approach to menstruation. While we have our innate tendencies, it is quite possible that each of these symptoms clusters will be experienced by each of us at different times in our menstrual lives, and we will also experience combinations of them.
I have not discussed any physical remedies here such as medication, herbs or supplementation but there are many great remedies for these complaints that ideally should be recommended in the context of a consultation. Going in more depth into behavioural and psychological matters can also be very useful.
If you have menstrual symptoms that cause you distress and/or indicate an underlying health issue, consult your doctor first before self-diagnosing or seeking alternative treatment.
This information will not be relevant if you are currently on hormonal contraception (except a Mirena) as you will not be ovulating and your “period” is withdrawal bleeding rather than the result of a non-fertilised ovulatory cycle. This information could be very helpful if you have used hormonal contraception in the past, as this can have a long-term impact on your hormone levels.
All the hormones in the body make up the endocrine system and they all work together. Talking about them individually is only partly useful and does not entirely accurately represent what goes on, which is why descriptions of hormones and their effects often slightly miss the mark when compared to our actual experience. So take all of this as an approximation of reality and always listen to your own experience.
Holistic Menstrual Health and Wellbeing by Lara Owen (all rights reserved 2016)
Lara Owen writes and researches on menstruation, work, and feminism. Based in Melbourne, she teaches and consults internationally.