by Marcela Bowie, DOM,
& Alexis Kasza

Cramping, fatigue, pain, changes in bowel movements, irritability, crying are all too familiar for many women during their monthly cycle. Are these symptoms normal? Should we just accept that pharmaceuticals are our only option in getting some relief? NO! There are many natural ways to get relief including Acupuncture, Chinese Herbs, Yoga, Pilates, Food Therapy and Essential Oils.

Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine views the body as a balance of Yin and Yang that ebbs and flows with our ever changing lives in harmony with nature. Yin is considered material, cool and stagnant in nature, such as our blood or body organs. Yang is the function of the material, warmth and movement or metabolic heat, as an example. Without yang, our organs would have no function and without yin, there would be no organ to function. Each day we are exposed to many of life’s stressors that our body needs to respond to in order to maintain a happy balance. Sometimes we need more yang, sometimes we need more yin. When our stressors become too great for our body to compensate, symptoms arise as a message that something is out of balance.

Pain with menstrual bleeding is view by Chinese medicine primarily as blood stasis (the blood’s ability to move freely has been impaired.) This can be due to a number of reasons such as cold accumulation in the uterus or from trauma (from surgeries, birth, fibroids, to name a few.) Pain can also be caused by a lack of blood or a lack of yang (function) to be able to move the blood. Irritability, sadness and crying and general mood changes during the menstrual cycle are also a sign of disharmony. The liver, which has direct relationship with emotions in general, has the task of storing the blood. During the few days before menstrual bleeding, the blood moves from the liver into the uterus in preparation for menses. If the liver is sluggish or impaired in anyway, this flow will not be smooth and emotional changes can occur. Breast tenderness prior to the menstrual cycle is also considered a symptom indicating an imbalance of the liver’s role within the menstrual cycle.

Chinese medical theory does not consider these symptoms as normal nor healthy. The key, though, is to determine the root cause of these symptoms and to diagnose correctly before beginning treatment. Treatment for menstrual relief using acupuncture and Chinese medicine includes inserting tiny acupuncture needles into various points on the body, moxibustion – heat therapy, Tui Na – Chinese medical massage or herbal therapy. Diet and lifestyle are also important and will usually be discussed and addressed during the course of diagnosis and treatment. Thorough history, evaluation, tongue and pulse diagnosis by a licensed Doctor of Oriental Medicine or Acupuncture Physician can determine which acupuncture points will be used and which Chinese herbal formula(s) will be best to not only alleviate these symptoms, but to treat the root cause of these symptoms.

Does acupuncture hurt? Yes and no. Acupuncture needles are tiny and usually a minimal sting is felt upon insertion, however, after the patient is laying on the table, they do not typically feel pain from the needles. Most patients fall asleep and enjoy the pleasant relaxation and endorphin release that occurs during acupuncture.

Yoga and Pilates

Movement is essential for combating cramps. Yoga and Pilates can help alleviate or subdue cramping. Yoga and Pilates help the body release endorphins and help tone, stretch and open the pelvic floor while massaging and moving vital organs that are important for menstrual health. Endorphins are natural pain relievers and mood elevators released during exercise.

Pilates, developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1900’s, works on core stabilization through the pelvic floor muscles. With the activation of these muscles, many women find that by reconnecting with their body they are able to lessen the severity of their cramps. To activate the pelvic floor muscles during exercise, focus on tightening the core muscles by pulling your navel to the spine. This will help develop the core strength needed to alleviate menstrual cramps. Stronger abdominals support your organs and keep them in place. You will be less likely to have uterine spasms and lower back pain if you have a tight stomach.

A great Pilates exercise to start with is called Breathing, this will effectively relieve menstrual cramps and other related symptoms. Start by lying on your back, knees bent, hands down at your sides. Breathe in through the nose, expanding the ribcage left to right and front to back. At the same time, draw your lower abdominals in like you are zipping up a pair of pants. Now, exhale through the mouth feeling the ribs move closer together while pulling the navel in deeper towards the spine. This should be practiced several times a day to achieve optimal results.

Practicing at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week will greatly improve symptoms brought on by PMS and menstrual cramps. The more Pilates you do, the better it is for the well-being of the body.

Yoga, an ancient Indian form of therapeutic exercise, stemming from Ayurveda, a traditional healing system, incorporates deep breathing which helps relieve the effects of oxygen deprivation to the tissues, one of the leading causes of cramps. Yoga postures reduce the contractions of the uterus which are responsible for triggering the pain hormones that cause menstrual cramps.

During a women’s period, certain yoga postures reduce discomfort associated with cramping and water retention. Postures, which place gentle pressure on the abdomen, such as cobra pose, may reduce tension and promote proper cleansing of the uterine wall. Calming effects of meditative posture such as corpse or tree pose can have a positive effect on mood variations common during the menstrual cycle. Gentle forward bends massage the abdominal and pelvic region, helping relieve congestion, heaviness, cramping, and heavy bleeding.

Practicing Yoga and Pilates helps combat symptoms of PMS and the menstrual cycle. Gentle movements with breathing will make all the difference.

Food Therapy

Warmth, nourishment, movement and relaxation are important for menstrual health and can be gained with food.

Compare the nature of cold and warmth. Cold congeals and contract which is not an ideal environment for smooth blood flow. Warmth promotes movement and relaxation. It is important to avoid eating too many cold foods before and during your menstrual cycle. Examples of cold foods are raw salad, ice cream and/or smoothies made with ice. Warming foods include spices such as cinnamon, peppers, cardamon and ginger. Soups, cooked foods and warm beverages are also helpful at this time to promote smooth menstrual flow. For raw food enthusiasts, always add warming spices to your food during your menstrual cycle and consider incorporating warm, raw soups. Eggplant, in many Asian traditions is considered beneficial to the uterus and also helps to move blood. Cinnamon is not only a warming spice but it also has the therapeutic properties of helping to move blood in the uterus according to Chinese herbal theory.

In general, consuming whole foods, staying away from caffeinated beverages and processed foods especially refined sugars are basic guidelines that should be considered especially during this time of month when our body is more sensitive than usual.

Chocolate! One reason that many women crave chocolate before and during their cycle is that chocolate is high in magnesium which relieves cramping. Dark chocolate or raw cacao are much higher in magnesium as they have not been highly processed. Try raw cacao nibs as a snack or Delicious Essential Oil Chocolate Balls, see recipe below.

Delicious Essential Oil Chocolate Balls (approx 60 balls)

Raw Cacao Powder – 8oz
Nuts – Almonds or Walnuts – 8oz
Raw Honey – 10-11oz 
Coconut Oil – 7-8oz
Essential Oils (15-20 drops)

Peppermint and wild orange are delicious flavors, but any of the above oils can be added for therapeutic relief.

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until firm, but still a little sticky. Add essential oils at the end, mix thoroughly. Make small round balls. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving. Chocolate balls will become more firm as they chill. ENJOY!