I just want to start off this post by telling you that some of the most common health issues among my female clients are related to their menstrual cycles. Their complaints range from irregular cycles, painful menstruation, emotional imbalance to full-blown Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). Ayurveda offers remedies and routines that deal with these health issues efficiently from the root cause.
When I was a teenager, having your period was seen as something that girls just had to deal with. If you couldn’t participate in gym class, you would have to sit on the bench and watch your classmates exercise. But most teachers preferred for us to take over-the-counter painkillers and just get along with it, as according to their perspective physical activity would help with the pain and discomfort. They meant well, but they were wrong in their approach.
Ayurveda believes that every person is unique and that therefore we all have different needs. So when we look at problems regarding the menstrual cycle, we need to look beyond the symptoms. Because two women can experience pain and cramps during their menses, but the causes can be completely different. We need to take a look at their diet, physical activity, medical background, their geographical location, the season and their living conditions. My approach in treating a woman who works changing shifts like a flight attendant or a nurse at a hospital will be different from treating a woman who has a steady 9 to 5 job at an office.
The menstrual cycle from an ayurvedic perspective
When you understand how Ayurveda sees the reproductive stages of a woman’s life, you will have a better understanding of where issues related to the menstrual cycle come from:
- Childhood is marked by Kapha dosha, which is the period from birth until the first menstruation. Kapha dosha is ruled by the water and earth elements.
- The fertile years and the middle part of life is marked by Pitta, which represents fire and water.
- During the last phase of life (from about 55 years) Vata dosha is predominant, represented by air and space.
The tissues of the breasts and uterus are the ones that are primarily nourished in a woman’s body before the nutrients are transported throughout the rest of the body. For a menstrual cycle to be healthy – that is, regular and without suffering – upon a lack of conception, Pitta needs to be able to transform the nutrients that are sent to the tissues of the uterus into blood so it can be eliminated by Vata through the downward movement (apana vayu), which is when menstruation will take place. So both Vata and Pitta are involved in this process. When PMS-related symptoms occur, usually both Vata and Pitta are our of sync, depending on your constitution and phase of life. For example, if you are Vata predominant and you live in a country where the weather is mostly Vata-aggravating and you also have a Vata-aggravating diet (think skipping meals, lots of raw and dry foods…), you might start to experience typical Vata symptoms during your cycle that could range from stinging pain to a scanty and brownish flow.
Overall it is important to know that the menstruation itself is a cleansing process, a natural detox managed by the body through the functions it was designed to execute at its utmost perfection. The blood from the uterine tissues that leaves the body contains waste material that the body can no longer use for anything else. This is also why it is essential to look at the quality of what we eliminate. What is the color of your menstrual blood? Is it scanty and dark, or is it bright red and very liquid? Does it have a neutral smell or does it contain a strong odour? Do you have any clots? Has the structure and the flow changed over the years and if so, when did this occur? How long does your menstruation last and was it always like this? These are all things I discuss with my clients to understand if the aggravation is more Vata-related or if we are talking more about a Pitta aggravation.
According to Ayurveda, the first 3 days of menstruation is when a woman should take rest, both physically and mentally. I myself practice Ashtanga Yoga 6 days per week, and the system clearly states we need to rest during those first days of our period. The body can simply not complete a monthly detox efficiently while you are putting a strain on it by exercising vigorously. Light discomfort or cramps can be part of the process, just like with any detox, but it is important we learn to distinguish between the signs of discomfort and imbalance.
What to do if you suffer from PMS
From my perspective it would be good to look at your whole cycle and not just your menstruation, and track how you feel physically and emotionally throughout your complete cycle. You can avoid a lot of symptoms if you adhere to a diet that is compatible with your constitution and living conditions, enough physical exercise and good quality sleep, the three pillars of health according to Ayurveda. Because anything can be poison, even water, and everything can be nectar. So even if a certain food is healthy overall, it might not be compatible with your constitution, whereas your best friend might benefit from that same food. Ayurveda can teach you how to take care of yourself, so you can make the right decisions for your particular constitution and stage of life and according to what you need.
If you already experience problems, we need to take a look at where the build-up of toxins is and how long the issue has been there. I personally also like to take into account whether you have ever used any medication – currently or in the past – that could have had an impact on your menstrual health (examples are contraceptive medicine or treatments for thyroid-related diseases).
Using painkillers is not an effective long-term solution; you might suppress the pain, but the problem is still under the surface, begging us to take action and change something in our lifestyle. I would therefore like to advise you to revise your current lifestyle and if necessary, consult with a qualified Ayurvedic Practitioner who can teach you how to take control over your health. Naturally, my door will always be open for you in case you feel you could use my guidance to get back to balance.
To finish with this article, below you find my answers to the questions many of you asked me on Instagram related to menstrual health issues.
Q: Is it normal to feel a lot of anxiety & depression before my menstruation?
A: In general, you should not experience severe anxiety or depression right before your menstruation, a slight alteration could be acceptable if this has always been the case for you. If it is something that you have started to experience suddenly, then it is important to look at where it comes from, like a change in your life for instance (a recent move, new relationship or break-up, change of jobs to name a few examples). On the other hand, it could also be related to hormone fluctuations. So I would always recommend you both consult with your doctor and take an appointment with an Ayurvedic Practitioner. According to my humble point of view, the combination of both systems could give you the greatest insights on the ‘whys‘, to then set up an action plan accordingly that is right for you.
Q: Why does my menstrual blood smell sweet?
A: The quality of sweet taste and smell as part of our senses are both Kapha-related. I would need to know more about you (diet, routines, digestion, details on your cycle over the years, possible pregnancies) and your background to determine whether this is a normal thing for you or not. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an imbalance, it could also be related to a change in your life phase. And sometimes the changes in our cycle could be positive as well. Feel free to contact me anytime if you want to talk about it.
Q: Are PMS cramps and bloating normal?
A: You shouldn’t experience severe issues before your period. One to three days before your period a small discomfort can be seen as normal, since you are about to remove the waste material from the uterus. But if you experience it already one to two weeks before or from when your ovulation has taken place, we would need to take a look at how Vata dosha is working for you, and if you have a Vata accumulation (stage 1 in what Ayurveda calls the six stages of disease) or aggravation (stage 2) we would need to determine the causes so we can reverse the process and get you back to feeling light.
Q: What to do if I have abundant blood and clots?
A: I would need to know if your period has always been like this or if it has changed over time. But in general, the abundancy of blood and clots are characteristics of a Pitta predominant menstruation. If your constitution is mostly Pitta dosha, it can happen that an imbalance in your cycle will mostly mean that Pitta becomes aggravated, with possibly an increase of your blood flow and forming of clots. If this is the case, I would recommend you adhere to a Pitta-pacifying diet and lifestyle in general, which means you would be looking for more bitter and sweet foods that cool down Pitta, avoiding very spicy foods, to give you an example.
Q: How to prevent headaches and fatigue during periods?
A: When it comes to menstrual migraines, there are different herbs available that could balance what we would call vitiated Vata dosha. Examples are Triphala, Brahmi (Lat. Bacopa Monnieri) turmeric and Shatāvari (Lat. Asparagus Racemosus), but I strongly recommend to consult a qualified practitioner on the dose, frequency and period of time to take these herbs, especially because your personal situation needs to be taken into account. But I do want to give you a general tip for headaches: 1-3 days before your period is due, you could practice nasya: add 5 drops of warm and liquid ghee to each nostril and lay down for 10 to 15 minutes (face-up with your heach tilted back). If you want, before this you can steam by hanging with your head above a pot of boiled water with two tablespoons of camomille added to it, covering your head with a towel. This will open your channels so you will absorb the ghee properly. I would also recommend you start a pranayama practice (examples of techniques are Nadi Shodana, Anuloma Viloma and Brahmari).
Q: Any foods that should be avoided or what food will help you get through that monthly period?
A: I would recommend you take light and warm foods that are easy to digest, like soups, dal, veggie creams or sauteed vegetables with some basmati rice, quinoa or bulgur if you digest those easily. Think of your period as a monthly detox, where you want to give your agni (digestive fire) as little work as possible, so it can focus on the cleansing process rather than having to transform big chunks of heavy foods (red meat, fried food and hard cheese are examples of this). The foods you take should pacify both Vata and Pitta, or at least not aggravate these doshas. Avoid fizzy drinks, alcohol, too much spicy food if your constitution is Pitta predominant and raw foods as your main meals.
Q: Does working out reduce the amount of menstruation blood?
A: Not necessarily, because physical exercise opens and clears your body channels, increasing the flow of prana (vital life force). So it could increase your flow, depending on whether you are mostly Vata or Pitta predominant in terms of your constitution. If what you are looking for is to balance out excess menstrual blood, we would need to look at a Pitta pacifying diet and routines. But this also depends on the reasons you have a large amount of blood, we would have to take a look at the causes of a possible imbalance.
Q: My PMS-related mood swings are very bad. I have had PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) for 12 years. What can I do?
A: I am sorry to read this. I will cover PCOS in a separate article, together with posts and stories on Instagram, because it is a large topic that requires a different approach, especially since it is generally considered a Kapha disorder that manifests due to a blockage of Vata and Pitta. Thank you very much for this question, I look forward to go more into depth on PCOS.
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