It’s a very common symptom – I’d say 90% of cycling women I see experience it. It’s one of those symptoms we’ve come to accept as normal and just something we have to live with, yet according to Oriental Medicine, which is what I practice along with Functional Medicine, it does indicate an imbalance that can be treated. Here’s a quick explanation of what’s going on and some things you can do about it.
The menstrual cycle is divided into roughly 4 phases. From ovulation to when your period starts is called the luteal phase. This phase is dominated by the hormone progesterone which, if fertilization happens, stays high to support the pregnancy. Hence the name pro-gest-(er)-one or pro-gestation hormone. Pretty cool, right?
If there’s no fertilization, then progesterone drops very rapidly and this signals the lining of the uterus, the endometrium, to shed, leading to what you know as your monthly period.
Well, if you were to get pregnant, your body would need a lot more nutrients to feed both you and the baby. The body, in all its wisdom, knows this. Progesterone relaxes smooth muscle, which slows down your colon’s rhythmic movement (known as peristalsis), increasing nutrient absorption and retaining water. While it’s really lovely and meaningful to understand that your body is doing this as a way to care for a possible baby, the bottom line is that it can leave you feeling bloated and maybe even constipated.
From an Oriental Medicine perspective, the phases of the cycle right at ovulation and the period are known as menstrual movement. It’s when the body goes from a stable state to one of moving things: hormones, body fluids, eggs, blood, etc.
A cornerstone of Oriental Medicine philosophy is that in order for things to move smoothly, the path must be free of obstructions. When there’s obstruction, the result is either pain, swelling, heat or blood stasis.
The organ which is responsible for keeping things moving things in the body is the Oriental Medicine Liver Channel. I say “Oriental Medicine Liver Channel” to make it clear that symptoms along this channel doesn’t mean that you have an actual liver organ problem. However, it helps to understand that the function of the liver channel in Oriental medicine is to maintain the free flow of Qi, or vital breath, blood and body fluids.
If there is obstruction anywhere in the body in the form of emotional tension, toxins, excess hormones or excess blood fat (dampness or phlegm in OM), the liver channel can’t do it’s job and it gets frustrated. Funnily, frustration and anger is a very common symptom of what we call “Liver Qi Stagnation”, often manifesting as PMS mood swings on an emotional level, and bloating on the physical level. If you tend to get easily frustrated or are holding on to anger and resentments, or if you just feel “blocked”, doing some emotional work to unblock the flow could do wonders for your monthly cycle.
One of the best ways to physically manage this symptom is to keep moving. When you move your body, especially through stretching and sweating, you unblock the liver and remove the obstructions so that it is easier for the liver to do its job without becoming blocked. Gentle movement that extends and opens the muscles, such as yoga, is a great choice during the premenstrual phase.
It’s also very important to reduce overall inflammation – especially inflammation in the digestive system – via a simple, natural and softer diet. Progesterone is already a pro-inflammatory hormone, so this is even more important in the premenstrum. If you’re sensitive to common irritants such as gluten, dairy or soy, you should avoid them throughout your cycle for at least three months to allow your body to reset.
Another thing you can do to beat the period belly bloat is to reduce your salt intake. To reduce your salt intake at meal time, try seasoning your food with dried oregano: it’ll give you a flavor-packed bite while reducing your craving for salt. And even though you feel water-logged, drink more water to balance out sodium levels and signal your body to release that extra water. Staying hydrated also improves your energy levels and reduces overall inflammation.
Some women find that supplementing with magnesium, which balances other electrolytes calcium, sodium and potassium, may help to reduce bloating. Magnesium glycinate is easier on your stomach than magnesium citrate, and its mild laxative effect is a common and safe remedy for occasional constipation. Magnesium sulfate, or common epsom salts, are another way to reduce bloating and constipation while relaxing tight muscles and soothing emotions. A warm epsom salt soak bath can do wonders for a premenstrual woman!
If these strategies don’t do the trick, acupuncture and Chinese Herbs are often a very effective way to reduce this and other premenstrual symptoms since they are holistic, meaning they take into account all of your symptoms as a whole. Acupuncture also reduces inflammation, improves circulation of blood and body fluids, and is great for relaxing emotional tension.
Well, I hope this helps explain one of the most common period symptoms I hear about. If you’re experiencing this or other uncomfortable symptoms, remember that you’re not alone, yet many symptoms we consider “normal” are actually symptoms of an underlying imbalance. Be patient with yourself and do seek professional support if needed.
Cheers to your health!
Kelli N. Davis, L.Ac., M.A.O.M.
Medical Board Licensed Acupuncturist & Oriental Medicine Practitioner
Specialist in Women’s Health