If you’re like many women, you experience a clear set of symptoms each month that indicate that your body is preparing to go through the monthly process of menstruation. Often this set of symptoms is referred to as pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), and most women are way too familiar with the discomfort and pain this time can present in our lives.
As each and one of us is different, unique human being, we don’t experience the same PMS symptoms. These can include weird cravings, sudden weight gain due to water retention, swollen, tender breasts, and unbearable lower back pain, just to name a few. But did you know that these symptoms are not part of a balanced, healthy cycle? That’s right, you read it well. Fact is, periods should normally be entirely pain-free.
Monthly Cycle through Ayurvedic Lens
The three doshas
According to the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda, we are each made up of an individual metabolic constitution that is built from a unique ratio of the three doshas (combination of elements). The three doshas are distinguished as vata, pitta, or kapha, and each give rise to a distinct set of mind-body characteristics. The PMS symptoms you might experience are based on your body’s unique constitution, your dosha and its current state of imbalance in relation to the world around you—usually as a result of your dietary choices, activities, or emotional stress levels.
Each dosha plays its part in your menstrual cycle, at different times. The pre-, post- and menstrual symptoms that may manifest in your body will all directly relate to the imbalance of the doshas in your body. Any dosha imbalances that we experience will be reflected in the cycle, a window into our overall state of balance. By maintaining the balance of the doshas, you can experience a comfortable, symptom-free period.
What your ama (toxins) are telling you
The severity of symptoms is also affected by the amount of ama (toxins) held in the tissues, so one of the most important ways to restore sattva [a Sanskrit word that means goodness and harmony] in your moon cycle, is to gently lighten your body’s toxic load.
The good news is that your body is telling you each month, through your symptoms, exactly what’s out of balance within. Certain symptoms of PMS are related to each dosha imbalances. By paying close attention to how you feel in the days leading up to and during your period, you can determine which dosha is out of balance within your body, and work to bring it back into harmony using Ayurveda.
Generally, according to Ayurveda, during a woman’s menstrual cycle, the Apana vayu, which is connected to theand governs the downward flow of energy in the pelvis, is working to cleanse the body of the uterine lining. This increased vata energy can result in symptoms such as anxiety, fear, and scatteredness, inability to focus, feeling cold, constipation, and fatigue.
A healthy menstrual cycle
A healthy cycle will have 28 days, just like the moon cycle (hence they also call menstrual cycle as moon cycle). When we’re in alignment, and not on hormonal birth control, we may ovulate on the full moon and bleed on the new moon or the other way around.
According to Ayurveda, menstrual blood or rajah is a by-product of lymph or rasa dhatu. Our rasa is affected by what and how we consume. With a healthy cycle, blood will be bright red in color, without clots, that rinses easily away from cloth or clothing. If your blood produces stubborn stains, this is a sign that the blood contains toxins, or ama. Bleeding should last around 5 days. It has no unpleasant odor and the quantity is not too great nor too little.
Phases of your cycle according to Ayurveda
There are three main stages of the menstrual cycle per Ayurveda, all possessing their own unique characteristics, which relate to the shifts in hormones.
During rajahkala we menstruate. At this time we are in the vata part of the menstrual cycle. This is because Vata is the energy that governs movement and flow, Ayurveda encourages us to support the downward flow of this energy, so that we support our selves in the clearing of our menstrual blood from our bodies. For this reason many yoga teachers and Ayurveda practitioners discourage us from practicing inversions while menstruating. This is a time of release and clearing, and your body knows that.
After menstruation, Kapha dosha becomes dominant. This part of the cycle is called rutukala, and it lasts from the end of the bleeding phase to the point at which we prepare to ovulate. The Kapha phase slightly overlaps with the Vata phase, as one part of the cycle flows into the next part. (Imagine as the moon rising as the sun sets.) During this phase, the endometrium thickens with a sense of tending, nourishing and preparing for what is to come. You might feel fuller in your body at this time – softer, curvier, more supple—a beautiful manifestation of the feminine energy.
At ovulation, we enter the Pitta phase of the cycle, or rutavateta kala. The endometrium becomes fully engorged and filled with blood, ready to receive the ovum. We can feel warmer, more prone to sweating, and increasingly hot-tempered at this time. Many women also feel a greater drive to do, create, socialize and achieve at this time—the ambitious, motivating energy of Pitta playing out.
How to identify your PMS type?
When identifying your PMS type, you need to pay attention to your body and how you feel in the 5 or so days before your period would start. Take a pen and notebook and journal about how you feel and what changes are you noticing on yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.
A Vata types will typically experience scant, absent, and painful periods. Blood may be darker, more of a reddish brown or even black. Vata imbalances can contribute to anxiety, difficulty sleeping, digestive issues and constipation around this time. They may also experience low-back and hip pain with their cycle. Some Vata types lose weight very easily, particularly when anxious and frantic. They can lose their periods for a while because the tissues of the body are no longer nourished, moist and supple enough to support flow.
To balance, return to comfort foods of your childhood—soft, mushy, soothing, warming, fragrant—such as kitchari, well-cooked soups, curries or stews, rice bowls with cooked veggies. Focus on eating heavier, sweeter foods such as sweet potatoes, squashes, avocados, bananas, coconuts, mangos, dates, brown rice, basmati rice and aduki, and mung beans. Ayurveda advises to use plenty of coconut and sesame oil, and use spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, dill or coriander. Avoid caffeine and excessive exercise during this time and do restorative yoga instead. Consume soothing, warming teas—cardamom, cinnamon, and best of all, golden turmeric milk and chai.
To ease pain, warm and loosen the muscles and tissues as much as you can. I love Japanese haramaki wraps because they are practical, comfortable, and accessible–Ayurveda’s equivalent is a castor oil pack. Although it is not recommended to use packs while menstruating, they are ideal in the days that lead up to menstruation. Rest also plays a crucial role in harmonizing the Vata cycle. Get very gentle physical exercise through movement such as yoga, tai chi, or walking.
Journal daily to release any worry or excessive thoughts that are swirling around in the mind.
A Pitta cycle (characterized by the fire and water elements) will tend towards heavier bleeding. They can begin quickly, with heavy bleeding coming on all of a sudden. You may experience anger or irritability and strong cravings. Many Pittas feel extremely hot and bothered in the lead-up to and early days of their period, as well as tenderness and swelling–particularly in the breasts. With the influx of blood and heat, swelling in the body, increased body temperature, headache, tender breasts, acne, nausea, vomiting, loose bowel movements and diarrhea are all common. If the blood contains ama the flow can be painful and unpleasant, too.
To balance their own inner fire during their heavy cycles, Pittas are advised to lighten up in all possible ways. They should follow a Pitta pacifying diet and lifestyle all month long, favoring un-spiced, dry and cooling foods. Spicy, overly rich, acidic, oily, salty, and sour foods will all continue to stoke the inner fire, when it needs the opposite: quelling and cooling.
Consume plenty of cooling and/or bitter foods such as dark, leafy greens, artichokes, okra, cucumber, jicama, apricots, berries, pomegranates, melons, barley, aduki, and mung beans, fresh fruit juice, coconut oil, water, mint, nettle, lavender, chamomile, coriander. You should also enjoy a bit of dark chocolate! Since the burning fire of pitta can cause intense hunger and cravings, be sure to stabilize your blood sugar by focusing on eating foods with a low glycemic index, including vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Feature cumin, coriander, fennel, saffron, cardamom, and mint as spices in your cooking.
In Ayurveda, organic aloe vera juice is recommended as a natural blood cleanser and excellent cooling tonic. Sip a small glass, twice a day, on an empty stomach. To reduce a heavy flow, take 1/8 tsp dried ginger in warm water three times daily.
You may enjoy slow movement and mindful practices to cool off. Avoid any activity that really gets your blood up (you have more than enough blood already!). This means every competitive, aggressive, overly challenging activities and behavior. Do calming physical exercise, such as swimming, yin yoga, or taking an evening stroll. Spend time in the cooling light of the moon as well as near bodies of water, as these are both very soothing to the fire element of pitta.
Journal intentions to release any anger or resentments and create a gratitude list.
Kaphas are most likely to retain fluid, bloat, swell and suffer distention of the bowel and abdomen. Periods can last longer and menstrual blood may be thicker, heavier and more mucous-y and they are prone to yeast infections or itchiness. A desire to sleep more also pervades, but, sadly for Kaphas, this will only exacerbate your lethargy, therefore many Kaphas experience depression or emotional eating leading up to their cycle.
To balance this, Kaphas should invite in lightness and movement. Follow a Kapha pacifying diet all month long, focusing on lighter foods and digestive spices. Add more spice to your daily food: black pepper, mustard seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger (fresh ginger tea is a wonderful tonic all month long for Kapha). Avoid sweet, stodgy, heavy foods. Processed, fried and overly oily foods in particular slow your bodily processes down even more. Focus on eating foods that include the pungent (spicy), bitter, and astringent tastes. Eat garlic, radishes, and chilies. Also add bitter foods like kale and dark chocolate. Astringent foods are good too: apples, cranberries, pomegranates, and artichokes.
Try green salads, light broths, zingy soup, spiced pulse and bean curries and stews, and Ayurvedic teas of tulsi (also known as holy basil), cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon.
Exercise and dry-brushing help to keep things moving. Wake up early to avoid feeling sluggish throughout the day.
Bring heat into the body from the outside with castor oil wraps (as described earlier, for Vatas, prior to but not during menstruation). Take hot baths with 4 to 5 drops of either ginger, cedar, cinnamon or clove essential oils.
Move more in the run-up to menstruation. Brisk strolls, hiking, running—aim to increase the rate of flow and shift stagnation, the body needs to be woken up. Try slightly more dynamic forms of yoga, too (such as kundalini which awakes the fire in the belly, or vinyasa, which brings heat into the tissues) and deep cleansing breathing (pranayama).
Do some focused journaling to release any emotions you are holding onto or that you have been avoiding dealing with.
Instead of a dreadful time of the month you do not look forward too, it’s easy to turn your menstrual cycle into a special time for self-care and you may even find yourself expecting and celebrating this monthly rite. For every conscious woman, menstruation can be a beautiful way to reconnect with our body’s natural rhythms. In Ayurveda, menstruation or rakta moksha is seen as an important detoxification process. Just as the Moon we are able to go through our phases and come back renewed, bright and shining our light on our world.
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Photo: Lenin Estrada via Unsplash; Bel Brosas