How Traditional Chinese Medicine Can Promote a Healthy Menstrual Cycle, According to Acupuncturist Emily Siy

After moving back to NYC after two years of globetrotting, my body needed some serious care and attention. When I asked, the universe answered.

This spring I met an angel of an acupuncturist in the midst of a personal health crisis—and her name is Emily Siy. I’ve visited acupuncturists all over the world, from flimsy tin buildings on dusty street sides in Bali, to salons of grand apartments in Paris, to Chinese clinics in central London, and I can honestly say Emily is one of the best acupuncturists I have ever had the pleasure of being treated by. 

She is gentle, strong, compassionate, and filled with knowledge. Most importantly, she takes the time to empower her patients to become advocates of their own healing journey. Each time I visit, she shares different techniques I could practice at home, from altering my diet, to learning how to practice moxibustion (an acupuncture technique of heating certain points to stimulate the flow of chi), to qi gong breathing exercises and chants to help me rebalance. 

During each session she comes in to check on me at least two to three times to make sure I am doing alright, and adjusts the session as needed—whether that means turning up the heater, burning some cleansing sage, playing a singing bowl, or gently placing crystals around me. 

Plus her needles don’t make me jump as I have with other acupuncturists, partially due to her intentional touch, as well as a tapping exercise she does with her fingers while inserting the needles. 

In awe of her wisdom and talent, I asked her to sit down and share a bit more about how I could use traditional Chinese medicine techniques to balance out the four phases of the menstrual cycle. 

Dr. Emily Siy, courtesy of her website

When clients come in for acupuncture in relation to the menstrual cycle, what symptoms are they usually experiencing? Why is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) a helpful approach for these imbalances?

A lot of people will have fibroids or endometriosis or cysts, and it is because they tend to have very difficult periods. There are not a lot of solutions out there for them that people feel generally satisfied with. People who have those conditions will experience very painful periods, and generally experience nausea, vomiting, or having to take a day or two off from work. And those days add up; you can start to feel defeated by that and like you need a solution. The periods can be so painful that over-the-counter medications don’t do anything. A lot of the solutions these patients are given involve taking birth control, which people don’t necessarily always want to do because of the hormonal side effects. Or they are recommended surgery, which some people feel is very invasive and want to try other solutions first, so they come to acupuncture instead. 

How should you track your cycle?

So the way you want to count your period or cycle is by starting with day one of when your period begins. A lot of people get confused by that because some people experience spotting before their period, so they don’t count those days, so technically you should count those days.

Can you break down the four phases of the menstrual cycle in relation to TCM? And how can we use the wisdom of TCM to balance the four phases of the menstrual cycle?  

Phase 1: Menstrual (Days ~1-6)

A time to: Conserve and maintain your energy.

When you are bleeding is phase one of the cycle. During that time in Chinese medicine, we want to support the spleen. The spleen has a lot to do with transformation, and obviously, there is a lot of transformation during this time. People tend to experience dampness, which means things kind of build up in terms of fluids, and during this time you want fluids to be able to move and pass. So strengthening the spleen ahead of time is good, and that means just trying not to eat all the foods you end up craving before your periods start–the sugary, ice cream, dairy type of things. Avoiding these foods helps to mitigate period issues—which I know can be difficult because sometimes people have very strong cravings.

Goal: To prevent fatigue as you shed endometrial lining. This should be viewed as a time of detox, and the body needs to rest during detox. This is a time for rest and self care. Refrain from physical activity in the first few days and then move to slow paced activities like yin yoga, meditation, or restorative yoga. It is important to listen to your body.

Diet:  Avoid sugary, heavy, greasy, dairy, cold, and/or raw foods at this time as they can impede the circulation of fluids and blood. Eat warm broths, bone broth, porridges, cooked veggies—foods that are nourishing but also easy to digest, nothing too heavy.

Phase 2: Pre-Ovulatory (Days ~6-12)

A time to: Nourish yin and blood.

Phase two is when the period is over, and before ovulation. In Chinese medicine, this is when you build up blood and yin, because you just released all of that blood. This is a great time to do more nourishing things during and after your period. This means eating nourishing foods, and doing exercises and activities that are slower and quieter—like gardening, cooking, and yin yoga. A lot of us, especially in urban environments, are very used to cardio or vinyasa or fast-paced yoga, so it can feel like a shift to do things like yin, restorative yoga, meditation, and just slow down in general and reserve yin during this time. 

Goal: To gain energy through your activities and lifestyle. Be creative, and take part in dynamic activities. Start with lighter physical activity like yoga or pilates in the first few days, then slowly begin to move into more cardio/weights/HIIT.

Diet:  Continue eating nourishing foods.

Phase 3: Ovulatory (Days ~13-17)

A time to: Up your yang activities and manifest. 

The ramp up to ovulation is phase three. This is a yang time, which means it’s time to start building up your yang energy. Most people will notice it having more energy during this time, even if they might not notice actual ovulation. 

Goal: A time for manifestation, creation, sensuality—this is the time of peak fertility for those trying to conceive. A great time for planning and vision boarding. This is a time to tonify your yang, so you can transition to more strenuous physical activity during this time like cardio or weight lifting.

Diet: Nourishing foods, warm broths, and leafy greens can help you prepare and nourish the blood to make the next phase of your cycle less painful. 

Phase 4: Premenstrual (Days ~18-28)

A time to: Slowly prepare and slow things down. 

Modern lifestyles get in the way, and instead of keeping the yang energy going, people tend to get really stagnant before their period. That’s when you will see PMS symptoms like breast tenderness—which means things are not moving—or people will have digestive issues, like constipation or diarrhea, right before, which just shows a lack in transformation or a lack of movement. Even stagnation of emotions occurs during that time, like irritability, depression, or just being emotionally more sensitive. It’s almost like your body needs to release the emotions, you kind of feel like you need to cry or yell at someone. And usually when the period begins people start to feel better because things start moving after this stagnation. 

Goal: Being active during time is good, but you should begin to slow things down. Use this time as a preparation phase, and clarify your needs. Meal prep and cook ahead for your rest days. Begin switching your activities to those which are slower paced. Generally speaking, everyone is different and if you have a condition like fibroids, endometriosis, painful periods, or PMDD there might be different recommendations depending on your individual situation.

Diet: Nourishing foods, which you can prepare beforehand for your rest days. 

Can you share a bit more about yin vs. yang in today’s world?

You have to reserve yin energy because our culture is so yang, you can burn through it quickly. Ideally, both are balanced, but this is rarely the case because we live in a yang world, and a yang culture, and a yang country. Focusing on preserving yin in today’s world is so important. Our culture focuses a lot on pushing through for this or that deadline.

In Chinese medicine our source energy is finite, this is called reserve chi, and since it is finite you do want to be careful. When your body is like, “I need to rest,” and instead you try to push through for another hour or two, that’s the reserve chi you are pulling from. Our culture emphasizes this “just push through, it’s OK” mentality, but you have to be careful how much you do that. If you do it once or twice you can get it back, but if you’re doing that every day you are probably not going to get that energy back. And you see people push themselves to the point where even if they haven’t experienced an actual trauma, their body feels like it’s been through one, and they suddenly have an autoimmune issue come up or be triggered. So you have to be careful. 

And final pieces of advice?

I really recommend qi gong. A lot of today’s yoga is exercise yoga, and more yang. Focusing on practices like qi gong, meditation, restorative, or yin yoga are important because they give back to the body. I would build these physical practices into the phases of the cycle, and listen to how the body naturally feels throughout the cycle. Like how during PMS and your period, you naturally feel tired and should rest. Caring for and listening to your body is important. 

Emily is currently offering a reduced rate post-vaccine session, and she also offers a special auricular acupuncture for POC to help combat racial battle fatigue. Additionally, she offers vaginal steaming, microneedling, facial acupuncture, and more.

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