Menstrual complaints can be annoying and painful. The most common health problems in women are irregular cycles, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstrual cramps. According to Ayurveda, these complaints are often the result of an imbalance in the doshas: the basic forces that act on our body. Fortunately, Ayurveda’s medicine also provides guidelines for rebalancing the body, for a normal, regular cycle with as few complaints as possible. Read on to find out more about the Ayurvedic menstrual cycle and the Ayurvedic treatment of menstrual problems
Ritu chakraMenstruation is a normal physiological process in the development of women. Menstruation usually starts around the thirteenth year and ends around the fiftieth year. It’s a cyclical phenomenon that usually occurs every twenty-one to thirty days. During menstruation the womb lining is shed under the influence of hormones. This cycle is called ritu chakra in Ayurveda. The word ‘chakra’ means that it occurs regularly, just like a cycle. A single ritu chakra covers a period of one chandramasa (moon) (28 days), except during pregnancy and lactation. Acharya Vagbhata, one of the most influential classical writers of Ayurveda, divides the menstrual cycle into three phases:
- The ritual kala (proliferative phase + ovulation) 12 to 16 days
- The ritual vyatit kala (secretory phase) 9 to 13 days
- Raja kala (menstrual phase) 3 to 5 days
The dathus of menstruationThe Ayurveda knows seven dathus, or basic body tissues. Menstruation is a by-product of the rasa dhatu, or plasma. This is the carrier of all sources of nutrition, such as hormones, vitamins, minerals and water. The second tissue is rakta dhatu: blood, which is also part of menstruation. With the shedding of blood, excess pitta is released. Other tissues are muscle, fat, bone and nerve tissue and finally the reproductive tissues. The rasa dhatu and rakta dhatu are the first two tissues that are affected by excess vata, pitta or kapha. This is the reason that these tissues are the first to change in quality and consistency.
The influence of doshas on the three phasesIn addition to dhatus, doshas play a role in the menstrual cycle. Doshas are the three basic forces or biological energies that control the body: kapha, pitta and vata. Kapha dominates the first half of the cycle after menstruation, the ritu kala. The womb lining becomes thicker and more glandular during this period. In this phase a woman undergoes the influence of kapha – the juiciness, the glow, the feeling of inner peace and self-awareness. Ritu kala culminates in ovulation. Ovulation marks the beginning of the next phase, ritu vyatit kala, dominated by pitta. Pitta works mainly through the blood tissue layer, so that the womb lining becomes develops more blood vessels, in preparation for the possibly fertilized egg. If the egg isn’t fertilized, the final phase follows: raja kala. Sushruta, the legendary ancient Ayurvedic doctor and surgeon, poetically described this process as ‘the cry of the vagina for the deceased egg.’ Menstruation starts with a sudden increase in vata. As long as the doshas function optimally and are not exhausted or overshadowed by another dosha, the menstrual cycle functions optimally. In Ayurveda, the life span of a woman is divided into three phases, each dominated by a different dosha. The period from birth to the first menstrual period is dominated by kapha. The middle part of life, or the fertile years, is ruled by pitta. The final phase of life is determined by vata, or the air energy. The total transformation process is regulated by pitta. Ayurvedic approach to a healthy cycle According to Ayurveda, with a healthy menstrual cycle there’s a periodic (monthly) bleeding of about five days, without stickiness, burning, or pain. The bleeding is not too heavy and not too scanty and bright red in colour. The most important dosha that regulates the menstrual cycle is vata. More specifically, apana vayu is active, a subtype of vata in the pelvic organs and colon. Apana vayu is an energy flow in your body that’s responsible for the downward flow of not only menstrual blood, but also urine, faeces and toxins. Apana vayu is directly responsible for the quality and quantity of menstruation. The Ayurveda sees menstruation as a natural detox process for the female body. It’s important to facilitate the process of releasing menstrual blood and not to get in the way of vata.
Menstrual problemsHowever, the normal menstrual cycle can be disrupted by an imbalance between the doshas. Many modern women are skilled in multitasking and have thereby learned to ignore their bodies natural rhythm and harmony. As a result, various complaints may arise. Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, is common among women of childbearing age. This ailment causes physical, emotional and cognitive complaints such as painful cramps, fluid retention, behavioural changes, mood swings, agitation, stress, irritability, crying showers, anger, nervousness, reduced concentration and forgetfulness. PMS occurs in mild form in approximately 90% of women and in moderate form in 20-40%. The symptoms often occur in the ritu vyatit kala, or the secretory or luteal phase (7 to 10 days before menstruation) and disappear when menstruation starts. Risk factors for PMS are smoking, obesity, stress, old age, depressive symptoms and an unhealthy diet. PMS is an ailment to take seriously because it can lead to reduced social activity, relational problems, and decreased performance work or school performance.
Imbalance in the doshas
VataBecause vata is responsible for the menstrual cycle and controls the downward flow of menstrual blood, it is important to keep vata in balance. When vata is in imbalance, the cold, dry and ‘rough’ nature of the energy flow causes a contraction of blood vessels in the reproductive tissues, resulting in pervasive pain in the lower back and abdomen. Menstruation in this case is often dry and scanty and is accompanied by nervousness and stress.
PittaWhen pitta is out of balance, its warmth and sharpness creates a spreading viscosity in the blood. This results in a very heavy menstrual period, accompanied by burning or stinging. Pitta-imbalanced menstruation also smells unpleasant and in some cases causes anger, irritability, swollen breasts and outbursts of acne and high temperature.
KaphaImbalance in kapha results in stagnation, due to the inherent coolness, density and stickiness of the energy. In practice, this manifests itself as a bloated and heavy feeling during – and sometimes before – menstruation. Menstruation is slimy, thick, heavy and long. Sleepiness, depressive feelings and an inclination towards emotional eating also characterize a kapha-imbalanced menstruation phase.
Basic guidelines for a balanced menstruationThe right diet, rhythm and behaviour are important to get the doshas back in balance and to prevent menstrual complaints. It’s important that you reserve all the ‘digestive fire’ (agni) of your body for cleansing. By cleaning we mean the removal of waste from the body, in this case menstruation. You disrupt the downward energy flow of vata as little as possible by consuming a simple diet. Eat warm, thoroughly cooked meals and try adding spices such as ginger, cardamom, cumin, coriander, fennel and cinnamon. During menstrual cleansing, hydrate with hot tea, such as ginger tea or lemon tea with honey. In addition, ensure that the flow of vata is not obstructed by upward movements, such as excessive talking or thinking or sexual intercourse. In addition, don’t suppress urges, like urination, defecation or sneezing. Some tips to keep the doshas in balance:
- An annual cleanse. This is one of the most effective ways to balance the doshas and a very effective way to balance and rejuvenate all body tissues. This way you ensure optimal functioning of your body.
- Avoid naps during the day, especially right after a meal. This increases the risk of imbalance in kapha.
- Practicing regular pranayama (breathing exercises) and yoga under the supervision of an experienced practitioner is recommended. Shashankasana (rabbit), vajrasana (sitting / kneeling), mandukasana (frog) and sarvangasana (shoulder position) are poses that help to maintain the flexibility and overall endurance of the body.
- During menstruation, poses such as malasana (pendulum), setubandha sarvangasana (bridge), ustrasana (camel), bhujangasana (cobra), matsyasana (fish) and dhanurasana (bow) provide relief from irregularity, abnormal heaviness, stiffness, bloating and PMS.
- Some yoga poses are not recommended during menstruation, such as inverted poses. These postures counteract the downward and outward flow of apana vayu.