The menstrual cycle – an ayurvedic perspective on women’s health
According to Ayurveda, the menstrual cycle follows the seasons, ie. spring, winter, and summer season. In Sanskrit, the menstrual cycle is translated from two words, namely “rtu”, which means season and “arthava”, which means menstrual blood. Therefore, the different phases of the cycle are characterized by the different doshas, namely vata, kapha and pitta. Ayurveda has taught me to live in harmony with nature and with myself. Balance can be achieved by adapting the lifestyle to the seasons and the menstrual cycle. The food we eat is equally important as how we think about ourselves. Self-love and body acceptance are important aspects of good health. Trauma, stress, and even relationships with family and friends can affect hormonal balance.
Women’s role in Ayurveda
In general, a woman is seen as a creator. Being a woman includes three aspects: giving or nurturing, intuition, and strength. On a subtle level, a woman is connected to Agni, the digestive fire. Therefore, a good and balanced digestion is important for hormonal balance and women’s health. If Agni works smoothly, it nourishes all body tissues and creates Ojas, our life essence, that stands for vitality and immunity.
Modern day women
In modern society it is no longer enough to just take care of the children. We want a career AND be able to have children. Achievements are equally important as being a good and caring mother. Having ambitions and being competitive are skills for women these days that increases pitta energy, whereas raising a family needs kapha’s stability. For me, working and earning my own money gives me self-confidence and independence. Autonomy to decide about my life. Maybe for you it’s different. Additionally, we should be beautiful, slim, exercise and socialize, as well as take care of the whole family. Such conditions create overall stress. Women’s success is often based on “size zero”, beauty, success, and self-sacrifice. Ayurveda, on the other hand, can give you access to your intuition: to understand your body and inner self, to be aware of yourself, and to make the right decisions for your life.
Menstruation itself is an internal and external cleanse. It should not hurt, nor should you bleed too much or too little. Coloration of the blood should be dark red, and stains should be washable. With help of Apana Vayu, the descending energy, the body secretes pitta ama. The body excrete excess pitta, mental and physical ama in form of blood. Meaning that pitta and vata dosha will fluctuate because of a shift of hormonal levels. For this reason, the period before menstruation can cause physical, emotional, and mental imbalances. An elimination of “internal heat” from the pelvis area is taken place. Apana Vaya is the controlling “wind” that gets rid of urine, feces, and menstrual blood. It even helps with contractions during labor. An access or lack of Apana Vayu weakens. A pitta woman, who is under constant stress and very active will feel a great relief from monthly bleeding.
Female physiology during the menstrual cycle
Agni – our digestive fire that transforms
The Caraka Samhita states that a balanced Agni nourishes the dhatus (body tissues) and helps us to feel mentally stable and calm. The 13 Agnis in the body are responsible for transforming nutrition at different levels, so that Ojas can form. Our digestive fire should not be too strong (high pitta) or too weak (low pitta, high kapha). What, how and when you eat is as important as stress and our feelings. Being angry or sad before or during a meal with influence your digestive capacity negatively despite of eating healthy food. If you want to learn more about the how to improve your digestion you can read my blog post about digestion.
Dhatus – the body tissues that make us
Our seven body tissues help to make and nourish us. At a tissue level Rakta and Sukra dhatu are the most important ones for the menstrual cycle. Shukra dhatu is nourished only when all the six previous dhatus are nourished properly. Ojas will be the result of a well-nourished body. It provides us with good immunity and health. Rakta dhatu is blood and secretes pitta and pitta ama. Shukra dhatu stands for our reproductive organs, and it circulates throughout the body and can therefore be compared to the endocrine (hormonal) system. It affects a woman’s breasts, ovaries, uterus, and vagina. Among other things, Shukra dhatu makes embryos and improves a woman’s charisma, strength, and energy. If the doshas and body tissues are disturbed, shukra dhatu decreases in quality and quantity, that even affects fertility.
Srotas – our body channels
Srotas are the body’s highways, and the channel of menstrual blood is called Artava Srota. Artava is the secondary tissue that strengthens Shukra dhatu. Certain types of food, like cheese and chocolate can block this channel and as a result forms “kleeda”, a sticky substance that is stored between the cells. If you want to know more about the different Doshas, Dhatus, Srotas and Agni, have a look on my Ayurveda channel on Boon.TV. The webinar “The Basics of Ayurveda” (right now only in Swedish) will help you to understand the body’s anatomy from an ayurvedic perspective.
The menstrual cycle according to Ayurveda
Kapha phase – follicular phase
Transitions on a woman’s cycle should be fluid and harmonious. The first phase after menstruation, is the phase where kapha energy rises. Uterine lining grows due to rising estrogen levels, which makes the endometrium more susceptible to a fertilized egg. A woman usually feels beautiful and strong in the follicular phase. Kapha energy invites the “inner” spring in us and a women might experience an increased sex drive and fuller breasts. Earth and water elements dominate with their heavy and dense qualities. Therefore, a woman needs lightness on all levels. Easy-to-digest and warm food, as well as herbs that promote digestion. Physical and mental activity is good, and a balanced woman finds it easy to plan and do things. In a kapha-dominant woman, this phase can be much longer which also manifests in a heavier and longer menstruation. During stress and menopause, it is shorter, but in general this phase can vary in length (12 to 16 days).
Ovulation – the high summer of menstrual cycle
Estrogen levels are highest during ovulation, our pitta high summer. During ovulation, the fire “boils” and kapha energy decreases. The egg is released if the woman is not pregnant. Hormonal changes begin with a drop in estrogen and rising progesterone. The uterine lining is transformed to optimize the implantation of the fertilized egg. The cervix opens and welcomes the sperm. Only during ovulation, a woman can become pregnant. In this phase, a woman should avoid heat in all forms, such as taking a hot bath, go to sauna, extreme exercise or eating spicy food.
Pitta phase – luteal phase
The second menstrual phase after ovulation is the time where pitta energy rises. Due to increasing progesterone levels, the uterine lining matures to be able to receive the fertilized egg. The function of the thyroid gland is affected and causes the metabolism and body temperature to rise. Increased pitta or pitta ama accumulates in the abdomen and pelvis that is secreted with help of Apana Vayu. The luteal phase takes about 12 to 14 days. If Apana Vayu doesn’t move downwards, you can suffer from headaches, cramps, and other symptoms. A variance in pitta and vata energy before menstruation can cause physical and emotional imbalances such as mood swings, hot flashes, brain fog, acne and more. The fire and air element increases in its presence. A woman may have a great need for clarity.
Measures if pitta energy is too high
Pitta-dominant woman should reduce overall stress. That is easier said than done, but a pitta woman can take small breaks during the day. Breathing exercises for 3-5 minutes work well too. Start with small things daily. Overexercising and spicy food increases pitta energy. The challenge for a pitta-dominant woman is to pay attention without seeing it as a weakness. Summertime is pitta time, and a woman should engage in pitta-balancing activities and diet recommendations if she has pitta symptoms.
Vata phase – menstruation
Menstruation is a time when the body suffers from hormone deficiency. Estrogen and progesterone levels are low, and estrogen rises again at the end of menstruation. A balanced woman is creative and empathetic. Vata, pitta, vata-pitta imbalances can cause cramps, pain, dryness, and inflammation. Just before menstruation a vata-pitta imbalance or high vata can lead to anxiety, restless sleep, constipation, or diarrhea. The bleeding phase can take between 3 and 7 days and should excrete more than 80 ml of blood. Apana Vayu is responsible for the downward flow and if it goes up instead, the woman needs to show Apana Vayu that the energy should go down.
Measures if vata energy is high
If Apana Vayu doesn’t know its way down, a warm foot bath, foot massage or heating pad on the lower back or inside thighs can help. Regular self-massage with warm oil a week before menstruation can decrease symptoms. Daily massage of legs is performed by massaging upwards on the outside of the thighs and downwards on the inside. Since menstruation is an external and internal purification, a woman should not be too active, rather should she rest and take it easy. Menstruation phase is a good time for yin yoga, meditation, yoga nidra and self-reflection. A vata-balancing diet one week before menstruation is advised. Use liver-strengthening and agni-balancing herbs for cooking.
Many women take contraceptives such as IUDs or birth control pills to avoid getting pregnant. Most people are happy with the results but do not know how much it affects the natural menstrual cycle, internal and external balance, and fertility. The double burden we women are exposed to nowadays requires all the energy we have, and we do not want to suffer. But one thing she must keep in mind: taking hormones also means giving up control of her own body! There is no information about contraception in the Ayurvedic scriptures. At that time, the women followed their natural menstrual cycle and avoided intercourse during ovulation. Women probably used a similar method as the Justisse method and their intuition. Nowadays, birth control pills are considered “semibiotics” and affect the gastrointestinal health and intestinal flora negatively.
Additional information about the menstrual cycle
What a woman should do when suffering physical and mental imbalances depends entirely on her Prakriti (personality and constitution) and Vrikriti (imbalance). So, it is good to take the time to get to know yourself and to pay attention to how the mood and body change during the menstrual cycle. Write a diary if you wish. Depending on which dosha is out of balance, she should adjust her lifestyle and diet accordingly. In my experience, it can take a few menstrual cycles. Look over your lifestyle and dietary routines and be observant of what causes stress. Patience is a virtue. If you want to know more about digestion, Ama, and Agni, you can read the blog post “Intestinal health from an Ayurvedic point of view”. And if you are curious to know more about the menstrual cycle in detail watch the webinar “Understanding your menstrual cycle” on my Ayurveda channel.
From the book: The New Ayurveda Practice Handbook, Hans Heinrich Rhyner
eWebinar Rosenberg Ayurveda Academy “Ayurveda for women and stress-related diseases”