As a teenager and young woman, I suffered horribly with painful menstrual periods. Every month, for several days before my period, I would feel bloated, tired and irritable. Just the pressure of the water in the shower would be intolerable on my tender breasts. I would crave sugar (especially chocolate). And the day before my period, I would literally be bedridden with knife-like cramps that would cause severe nausea and vomiting.
My mother took me to the gynecologist. They found absolutely nothing wrong with me and told my mother and me that all of these symptoms would probably disappear after I had my first baby. Just what every mother wants the doctor to tell her sixteen-year old daughter!
Western medicine now defines Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) as a cluster of psychological and physical symptoms that appear to be closely related to the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. There are many theories that attempt to explain the cause: progesterone deficiency, vitamin B6 deficiency, elevated levels of prolactin or aldosterone, or high levels of prostaglandins. Diuretics or oral contraceptives are often prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms, but neither is without side effects when taken on a long-term basis.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has been successfully explaining and treating PMS for thousands of years. Both acupuncture and herbal therapy give excellent results to address the underlying energetic imbalance that gives rise to all of the symptoms associated with PMS. As with all menstrual problems, it typically takes a minimum of three menstrual periods to completely regulate the cycle, but often an improvement is seen the very first month. Had I known about Chinese medicine back then, I could have eliminated that monthly torture. And probably avoided the fibrocystic breast disease and ovarian cysts that developed years later.
When you study the physiology of the body organs in TCM, there are many functional similarities to our understanding of the purpose of that organ in Western medicine. For example, both modalities understand that the kidney is responsible for water elimination in the body and that the heart pumps the blood.
But TCM is based on concepts that seem foreign to us. TCM views the human body as an energetic system, where each organ has its own energy called Qi (pronounced “chee”). The energy of each organ flows along the surface of the body on a specific pathway called a meridian. Each meridian dives deep into the body to connect with its corresponding organ. Each meridian has many crossing points with the other meridians, creating a vast web-like network of energy pathways. When the energy in the meridians becomes stagnated or blocked, pain and disease result. And when the energy of one organ is out of balance, there are very predictable effects on the other organs.
In TCM, the Liver and Spleen play a major role in the menstrual cycle. The Spleen makes the Blood, which is then stored in the Liver. The Liver is responsible for the free flow of energy throughout the whole body. Every month, the energy of the Liver needs to move the Blood in preparation for the menses. If the Liver energy, or Liver Qi becomes stagnated, painful or irregular periods result. What would cause the Liver Qi to stagnate? In TCM, it is believed that emotional stress in the form of anger, repressed anger, frustration or resentment play a key role in stagnating the Liver Qi. Liver Qi stagnation may also be caused by prolonged drug use (prescription or recreational) including oral contraception. So, the Western medicine treatment approach, may in fact be contributing to the perpetuation of the imbalance.
The Liver meridian starts at the big toe, runs up the inside of the leg, wraps around the genitals, and continues up to the breast. “Liver Qi Stagnation” is a very common pattern of imbalance that is usually the underlying cause of PMS symptoms, though there may be other patterns of imbalance that coexist. Manifestations of Liver Qi stagnation are irritability, depression, breast distention, and painful or irregular periods with dark blood flow that usually contains clots. Liver Qi stagnation may cause us to sigh a lot in an effort to unblock the stagnation in the chest. In chronic cases, Liver Qi stagnation may cause the tongue body to have a purplish color or a red color on the sides of the tongue. The pulse may have what we call a “wiry” quality.
When the Liver Qi is stagnated, there is a direct negative effect on the energy of the Spleen. It is said that the “Liver overacts the Spleen” causing a Liver/Slpeen disharmony. In TCM, the Spleen has the function of controlling our digestion and transforming dampness in the body. When the Spleen Qi is deficient, we have symptoms of abdominal distention, fatigue and loose stools. Craving sugar is a sign that the Spleen is out of balance.
Headaches often are associated with the menstrual cycle. The Liver channel has a branch that ascends to the vertex of the head and a Liver imbalance may be associated with that type of headache. But more commonly, the headaches appear at the temples, pathway of the Gallbladder meridian. In TCM, the Liver and the Gallbladder function as an organ pair. When the energy of one of the organs in a pair is out of balance, the other is almost always affected. Hence, Liver Qi stagnation plays a part in migraines or temple headaches.
There are many acupuncture points on the body that facilitate the smooth flow of Liver Qi. Commonly we needle the “Four Gates” of the body, which strongly move the qi. These points are located on the hand and foot (LI4 and LV3). There are also points to tonify the Spleen and calm the mind. Other points would be added to address individual body constitutions.
There are several herbal formulas that address PMS symptoms. Xiao Yao Wan is probably the most famous formula to address Liver Qi Stagnation, but other formulas may be more appropriate depending on the color of the tongue and any other underlying imbalances.
This is a very simplified explanation of some of the energetic relationships that occur in the body and the symptoms that appear when there is an imbalance. Please consult a licensed practitioner of acupuncture and herbal therapy to help you if you suffer from PMS.
About the Author:
Joyce Marley is a licensed acupuncturist servingNew Hartford-Whitesboro-Clinton-Utica-Rome, NY. She writes Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) articles for alternative health solutions.