Work With, Not Against, Your Menstrual Cycle — A Chinese Medicine Practitioner Tells Us How

Photographed by Ruby Woodhouse.
For someone who has been menstruating for over a decade, I am not very good at it. You know the people I'm talking about: the ones who track their flow religiously and can preempt exactly when they’ll start bleeding with impressive accuracy.
People have been dealing with Aunty Flo forever. And while you might be familiar with the vague transitions (it begins, it stops, repeat), there’s a little more to it. 
Culturally, the ways of dealing with periods differ depending on the place and time. It's why some are turning to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for advice. Hinging on the principles of yin and yang, TCM says we can take what we know about balance and nature, and translate that to our own menstrual cycles.

What are the four phases of the menstrual cycle?

We tapped the shoulder of AHPRA registered Chinese medicine practitioner and reproductive health educator Michelle Smith to shed some light on the four phases of the menstrual cycle. While we might have heard the more technical names — menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase — TCM uses seasonality to differentiate the phases — inner winter, inner spring, inner summer and inner autumn. 
“The four seasons we see in nature are reflected in the body; we can see that in the four phases of the menstrual cycle, and we can also see it in the different seasons of life. We can start to work with the seasons of our cycle, and the seasons of life, rather than constantly going up against them,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
Smith says that the four phases should be taken as general ‘textbook’ advice — we’re all human with varying emotions and differing life situations after all. “What I often find is that while, say, ovulation can be a time when people feel sexy and flirty, it can also be a time of heightened anxiety,” explains Smith. 

Phase 1: Menstruation 

Also known as the inner winter phase, the first stage of your cycle is menstruation; this is when you start to bleed. To get specific, it’s when an egg from the previous cycle isn’t fertilised, so the lining of your uterus sheds through your vagina.
“In Western culture, we have this girlboss hangover where we think we need to hustle our way through our period when really it's a time of rest. Even though you can do something doesn't mean you should do that. In TCM, menstruation is all about hibernating, turning inward and focusing on rest and self care,” Smith shares.

“If you have brown blood [or] spotting at the end of your cycle, it could be a sign that your energy levels are low,” she continues. “Make sure you are nourishing your body before the period with lots of warm food and sufficient calories so your body has the energy stores required to shed the lining.”

Phase 2: Follicular  

As the inner spring phase of the cycle, you won’t be surprised that phase two is all about growth. The follicular phase is when your ovaries prepare an egg to be released, when your body starts to rebuild the endometrial lining that it shed during menstruation. 
“It’s also the time when estrogen is dominant and hormones are super active in the ovaries as we grow the dominant follicle that will go on to produce the egg at ovulation,” says Smith. 
Here, you typically flourish creatively and socially. Smith recommends using this period of time to start creative projects. “We're naturally wired to be more social during this phase. Think about how good you feel in spring after a long, cold winter — it's the same in the menstrual cycle,” she says. “This tends to be a time of expansion and growth. Thinking of learning a new hobby? Start in your follicular phase as you're likely going to have more energy and feel more expansive and creative.”

Phase 3: Ovulation 

Smith tells us that stage three of your cycle is a quick one, lasting only 24 hours. Also known as inner summer, the ovulation period is when an egg is released from your ovaries and travels to your uterus.
“I think it's pretty widely thought that ovulation is this drawn-out event, but it's really not. In the lead up to ovulation, cervical mucus becomes more prominent,” says Smith. “Fertile mucus tends to look like raw egg white and is stretchy but oftentimes with my clients, they just notice that it's a little more slippery when they wipe. Once you've ovulated, the mucus [colour] will [look] more [like] cooked egg white and get a little thicker, too.”
For those not wanting to fall pregnant, Smith recommends wearing condoms or engaging with other contraceptive methods. “The frustrating thing is that this is when you're going to be feeling most sexual [and] horny during your cycle, so if you are avoiding conception then definitely make sure you're using contraception.”

Phase 4: Luteal

The last stage of your cycle helps maintain the thickened lining of your uterus; it’s preparation for a fertilised egg to stick and trigger contraception. This is the inner autumn phase and Smith says that even if you aren’t pregnant and have no chance of being so (such as being in a same-sex partnership), your body typically operates in a more protective state. 
"This means during the luteal phase we are more likely to tend towards risk-averse behaviours. People tend to feel like nesting during this time,” she says. “I plan all of my life admin, invoicing and boring parts of my business into my luteal phase… I am way more task focused [then].
For nourishment, Smith says to eat “heavier meals”. “Metabolic demand is higher so honour your body by eating enough food. You [might] instinctively feel like lots of root vegetables , [like] roast pumpkin and sweet potato. In the gym, this is a good time for strength and conditioning versus a HIIT class that is better suited to around ovulation when you have more energy."
This article contains general information, and should not be understood as medical advice. Each individual's circumstances are different and should be discussed with a medical practitioner.
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