by Mollie Moorhead, CAS, CMT
It came to my attention recently that there aren’t any classical Ayurvedic writings on treating menopause.(1) There is a lot written about women’s health, but that is absent.
This would seem to indicate that in ancient India, women en masse were not having any difficulty with menopause – they were just ceasing to bleed. Fast forward a few thousand years to this time and place: This is not the case at all! According to Johns Hopkins, 75%(!) of perimenopausal women experience hot flashes, one of the most common and uncomfortable perimenopausal symptoms.(2)
Is it nutrition, lifestyle, or perhaps the presence of hormone-disrupting toxins in the world and our food supply today that accounts for this difference? (All of the above, perhaps…) In any case, it’s striking, isn’t it? It makes one stop and think. It has me thinking about how we as women care for ourselves during our menstrual cycles.
From the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation, said very well:
Women who have […] menstrual symptoms regularly are more likely to experience menopausal symptoms when they reach the age when their cycle begins to end or stops altogether. The reason is simple: their bodies are out of balance and their energy has declined. The good news is women can learn to rebalance their bodies and increase their energy.(3)
It’s a pet project of mine, to care for myself well when I am bleeding – because I’ve had so many damn problems with my period and my reproductive organs, more by far than any other body part or system. And I’ve learned a TON in the process, and it’s all gotten better and better. So I’d like to share four healing life practices with you, which really are a bit secret; hardly anyone seems to know them.
If you have an actual pathology (severe cramps, endometriosis, HPV, cysts, et cetera) you would do well to get some personalized support – a custom herbal formula at the very least, and ideally someone to create a treatment plan with you to get you back into balance – there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. But the healing life practices I share below are good for all women, all womb-bearers, and will help you on your journey to balancing your cycles and setting the stage for an easier menopause. The following four practices come out of Ayurveda, but are mirrored in every single ancient culture and medicine system I know of:
I mean, really rest. NO strenuous exercise during the first few days of your cycle. No running, jumping, dancing, yoga inversions (where the energy flow of the body is reversed, like handstand or downward dog), or pranayama.
Why? A few reasons. Something to consider first of all: The uterus is 2x it’s usual size and weight at the beginning of the menstrual cycle. Any movement places extra strain on the already few and hard-working ligaments which hold the uterus in place. The uterus has to be able to expand and contract as needed, so it is relatively free to move inside the body. This is great, except…it makes the uterus quite vulnerable to displacement. What is the significance of a somewhat displaced uterus? Well, pain, for starters. It hurts! Energy and blood flow become constricted and blocked, leading to cramping.
In Ayurveda, we see the menses as a time for a woman to turn inward and rejuvenate herself, not keep go-go-going. Traditionally menstruating women didn’t even cook for the family – it was her turn to be cooked for and cared for! Far from an outdated cleanliness taboo, this is all about respect and rejuvenation. This is a time for a woman to rest, meditate, dream, read something enjoyable, write, and do creative projects – as long as they aren’t strenuous – and consider taking gentle walks if exercise is desired. Put your phone away for a while. Get a little bored. It’s excellent to get bored sometimes.
2. Abstain from Sex
This is also nearly-universal across cultures. Once again, this is about respect and rejuvenation – and I would add, also about guarding and maintaining a rich and fertile separate self in our relationship with our partner or lovers. What sex means to you, is arguably a personal matter. The focus here, as I understand it, is on keeping the energy of the body flowing down and out, and on resting deeply. In my mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean zero sexual contact, but it definitely means to take it easy. (Not the time for what a friend of mine calls “Wild monkey sex” – save that for later!)
3. Eat lightly – Let Your Body Cleanse
This is somewhat intuitive, right? Many women do this already, especially if they are bloated or in pain. The menses is a monthly cleanse. It just happens; all we have to do is support it. Now, by cleansing, I do not mean one of those modern exercises in blood sugar instability which are also called “cleanses”. As I said, the cleanse is happening already, but in terms of diet, I mean: Eat hot grain porridge with ghee and spices, hot brothy soups, kitcheree or congee – or my favorite supper for when I’m just a bit hungry and feeling cozy: A cup of hot milk (always full fat, ideally from grass-fed cattle) with ghee, cinnamon, and turmeric. Some honey added after it cools a bit. (Milk is, by the way, a complete meal, not a beverage.) Avoid: Sugar (sigh), alcohol, processed foods, and especially avoid overeating. Eat real, warm, cooked, traditional foods per your digestive capacity. Yum.
4. Enjoy a Ritual Bath and Spa Day after your Period
At the end of your period, it’s obviously time for some ritual bathing. Women have always done this! You can DIY or go to a spa, or a mix of the two. In addition to simply washing yourself thoroughly (no harsh chemicals, please), consider getting a massage, a scrub, and having a nice soak in some hot water. You can also do any other grooming you need to do for yourself anyway on this day – make a real production out of it.
Take the time and money to really give yourself some love, fill up your bucket, and feel like a freakin’ beautiful goddess. This helps you really show up in the world and helps you take better care of others in turn.
Two Scrub Recipes for You to Try
I don’t measure anything and you don’t need to either
I learned this from my friend Eva a couple years ago. It will make your skin GLOW.
-Oil of your choice – sesame, olive, jojoba all work fine
-Some drops of essential oil – lavender, rose, ylang-ylang are nice
Mix together in a dish so it is heavy on oil and moderate on salt. Get in the tub without water, and scrub yourself head to toe, so the skin gets pink. Scrub light on the face and neck, or just skip altogether. Everywhere else, really go for it. Wash off with warm water, minimal or no soap. (Use common sense – do not do this on irritated skin or open sores, obviously.)
I got this from Judith Berger’s fantastic book Herbal Rituals. It is excellent for dry, red, or irritated skin. Can help alleviate itching, especially from eczema.
-Rolled oats, dry
You can see where this is going. Put some oats in an old washcloth and secure with a rubberband to make a sachet. Take it to the bath or shower with you and get it nice and wet. A syrupy, mucilaginous, oat-y liquid will begin to ooze out of it. Use this to scrub your skin. It is incredibly soothing, and great for delicate skin, especially great for the face.
“To cure disease after it has appeared is like digging a well when one already feels thirsty” ~ The NEI JING (the seminal Chinese medicine text)
In other words, Let’s take good care of ourselves now so we don’t have to pay the price later.
This goes way beyond some abstraction of stocking up on health like a squirrel burying nuts: It is about feeling good – really, deeply GOOD – nourished, tuned-in, and rested, NOW. That is, indeed, how you know you are on the right track.
Don’t run yourself ragged hoping to go to Heaven and collect your reward – it doesn’t work that way. The ends ARE the means. Do these four practices in addition to any medical support you need, and though it takes time to reverse deeper imbalances, your cycles will start to feel more enjoyable and easy very quickly, as you reclaim this sacred time.
1: My friend and mentor Eden Tosch (www.edenayurveda.com, she also practices in Oakland) mentioned this to me – I really didn’t know. I am not a Vedic scholar by any means, so I learn these things from her all the time.
2: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org – lots of info about what the medical establishment has to say on menopause
3: http://www.tcmworld.org/programs/womens-health/menopause – Chinese Medical perspective on menopause and its potential challenges