Balance the Reproductive Cycle Naturally with Traditional Chinese Medicine
Today Vibrant Wellness Journal has the privilege of working with Dr. Charyse Harvick, a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). She specializes in women’s health care, and works with food, herbs, and supplements to help balance the reproductive cycle naturally. She offers us some advice about the four phases of our cycle: foods to enjoy, foods to avoid, and suggested supplements for a happy cycle each and every month.
It’s important to know that a healthy reproductive system is dependent on two factors:
- Genetics: often passed down through mother’s line
- Lifestyle: diet, exercise, and stress levels
While we cannot do anything about our genetics, we can counteract some of the issues inherited from our genetics with a healthy lifestyle, including a good diet and management of physical activity and stress levels. Most of the information that follows will help you improve your diet with specific focus on menstrual cycles- in combination with exercise and stress reduction will help balance the reproductive cycle naturally.
But first, some menstrual cycle basics:
Generally women have a 28-day menstrual cycle, though this can vary from 26-35 days. Usually the menstruation lasts 3-5 days with normal blood loss at 30-80ml. There are four phases of the menstrual cycle:
- Menstrual: begins on the first day of blood flow.
- Post-menstrual: approximately seven days after onset of menses
- Mid-cycle/Ovulation: about day 14 (varies between day 12-15)
- Pre-menstrual: generally a week before the menstrual cycle begins (often starting on day 19-28, depending on the individual cycle)
Helpful Tips for Healthful Cycles
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), during the Menstrual phase of the cycle the energy of the body, mind, and spirit is turned inward and is going through a cleansing process. TCM practices during this time would work to regulate Qi (energy force of the body) and nourish the blood. Foods that are recommended during menstruation are those that invigorate the circulatory system, stimulate the digestion and aid in detoxification. This includes lots of fresh veggies like beets, eggplant, greens (kale, chard, bok choi, watercress), asparagus, cilantro, celery; beans like mung beans and adzuki beans; seaweeds (including micro-algae like spirulina); bitter fruits like grapefruits, green apples and lemons; and natural sweeteners that have warming qualities such as barley malt, date sugar and rice syrup. Also recommend is apple cider vinegar with a small amount of raw honey to alkalize the system and help with digestion. Including herbal teas like chamomile, raspberry tea, and ginger will help keep your whole body warm and cozy.
During the menstrual phase it’s also important to avoid stimulants like alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and refined sugar; and it’s also a good idea to avoid hydrogenated fats and excess meat and dairy which can make the body feel sluggish. Also, because our body needs to maintain warmth and movement during this time, it’s important to limit the amount of cold or raw foods and heavy, starchy foods that might weigh us down.
In general it’s important to have ample amounts of calcium, magnesium, and fatty oils (all found in the plant foods listed above); if these essential nutrients are lacking disorders may arise. Here is a short list of some of the issues you might face during menstruation, and tips for helping them:
- Cramping with not much flow indicates stagnation in the body. It’s recommended to add moving foods like turmeric, saffron, and eggplant (which specifically treats congealed blood affecting the uterus). Add turmeric and/or saffron to rice, grains or soup. If you have cold hands and feet add some ginger too.
- Excess bleeding with lethargy, loose stools and feeling weak: add leeks, vinegar, astragulus (huang qi).
- Excess bleeding and feeling hot and agitated: add cooling millet, mung beans, seaweeds, chard, spinach, and barley. Also, try Shepard’s Purse tea which can help stem the flow of blood.
- Light flow and feeling cold and listless: Add warming soups with ample amounts of green vegetables and root vegetables (beets, sweet potatoes, and carrots), including ginger.
During the Post-Menstrual phase it’s important to nourish blood and yin after the menstrual flow of the previous week. It’s important to include ample amounts of protein, fat, folic acid, and vitamin B12, which are essential for building blood and yin. Also important during the Post-menstrual phase is foods rich in chlorophyll (that’s all the green goodies!): kale, chard, bok choy, micro-algae, seaweeds (especially dulse, which is high in iron). Other foods that are nourishing during this time include nuts and seeds, especially flax and black sesame seeds; sweet fruits: especially berries such as mulberries, goji berries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, dark grapes, avocado, dates, figs, and apricots (which are high in copper); sweet vegetables such as beets, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro; whole-grains such as oats, quinoa, buckwheat, barley (pan-roast before cooking), oats, rice; legumes like black beans, kidney beans, soy beans. Other supplements that can help nourish our blood after our period include molasses, which is very high in iron and trace minerals, royal jelly and bee pollen (builds yin and jing), Angelica root (an excellent herb for women’s health) and herbal teas featuring nettle and rose-hips. It’s recommended to limit spicy foods, alcohol and coffee.
For our ovulatory phase or Mid-cycle, it’s important to nourish the Kidney Yang and Jing with warming foods that support digestion and tonify the kidneys. Warm and spicy foods featuring cloves, fenugreek, fennel seed, anise seeds, black peppercorn, ginger, and cinnamon are helpful, along with other foods like walnuts, black beans, onion family (chives, onion, scallion, leek) and quinoa. During this phase, like menstruation, it’s important to limit cooling foods like raw fruits and vegetables and definitely avoid excess salt.
Unfortunately, many of us are too familiar with the negative effects of the pre-menstrual phase of our cycles. To manage some of these symptoms, TCM practice is to invigorate the blood, tonify Yang if its deficient, move Qi, keep the uterus warm and expel cold from the body.
Spicy foods are welcome during this phase, so enjoy your Indian or Arabic foods- look for cardamom, marjoram, cumin, fennel, dill, ginger, horseradish, rosemary, mint and lemon balm. Like other phases, beets are very helpful during this phase. Other recommended vegetables are taro root, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, turnip root, onion family, and kales. Fruits such as cherries, plums, strawberries; grains such as amaranth, rye, wild rice, and nuts such as pine nut and chestnuts are good also. Suggested herbal teas include chamomile, licorice, raspberry, and ginger– all of which are healthful and relaxing. During the pre-menstrual phase it’s important to avoid cold foods, raw foods, excessive consumption of fruits, all shellfish (too yang), coffee, stimulants, sugar and dairy products. Exercise is key at this time too.
If you suffer from negative PMS symptoms, essential fatty acids might be helpful to balance some of the hormones. These can be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, hempseeds, evening primrose oil, and pumpkin seeds. It’s also important to ensure that you get enough magnesium. Fortunately, cacao (chocolate!) is a good source or magnesium- but you have to get the good quality, dark chocolate (or make your own!). Many PMS symptoms are based on a liver Qi stagnation. To get things moving, look for foods like dill, fennel, and coriander seed, mint, peas, kelp, and try herbal teas featuring raspberry, mint, chamomile (one of my favorites is Yogi Tea Women’s Moon Cycle). Also helpful is the Chinese herb formula known as Free and Easy Wanderer (Xiao Yao Wan). This formula has many beneficial herbs to help keep the cycle regulated, manage stress, and keep our hormones balanced.
Menstrual cycle image from: http://www.sportsmd.com/SportsMD_Articles/id/309.aspx; beets image from Shutterstock
These tips listed above are meant to be educational and do not take the place of a visit to a licensed medical professional. We here at VWJ are not doctors, so please see a professional before beginning any supplementation or herbal regimen. Please and thanks.