It refers to “that time of the month” when those around you walk a little more carefully, when you perhaps find yourself bursting into tears during a diaper commercial (“but it is so sweet!”) or complaining very loudly about the slow person ahead of you in the grocery line. Yup, that week before your period, when PMS hits, big-time.
PMS, or premenstrual syndrome, refers to an assortment of symptoms that as many as 85% of women experience in the week leading up to menstruation. Symptoms can be physical – breast tenderness, bloating, cramping, leg pain, low back pain, fatigue, irregular digestion, headaches, acne…or emotional – being exceptionally weepy, easily irritated or angered, feeling depressed, trouble sleeping, feeling anxious, etc.
Biomedicine doesn’t actually understand exactly why PMS occurs in some women and not others – it clearly has to do with the hormonal changes leading up to the period, but various research points in different directions regarding the specifics.
But Traditional Chinese Medicine has a very clear and straightforward explanation for PMS…and it all comes back to the Liver energy. The Liver energy system in TCM is in charge of circulating energy smoothly throughout our bodies – we talk about how the Liver oversees “the smooth flow of qi”. The Liver energy governs the menstrual cycle in women – menstrual blood is blood from the Liver energy system. Throughout the menstrual cycle, then, the Liver energy is constantly changing. After the period, the Liver blood energy is weakened (due to the recent period) and in the first half of the cycle, the body is building its stores back up. As the blood and energy builds, it can become harder to move smoothly. This is why as the period approaches, symptoms of stuck energy appear – headaches, cramps, bloating, irritability. When the period comes, the energy (and blood) isn’t stuck anymore as it flows as it is supposed to with the period. This is why PMS symptoms are usually relieved when the period starts.
So, here's the kicker...you shouldn't have to experience PMS. If all systems in your body are functioning optimally, you should be able to just glide right through that week just like any other! It is constantly amazing to me how many women don't know that. I ask about their periods, and they say "Oh, they are fine, no issues." I ask if they have cramps, and they say "Yes, but nothing bad. Usually if I take advil all day I can function." And I ask if they have PMS, and they say "well, yeah, but doesn't everyone?"
Well, no. When your body is functioning at its best, your period shouldn't be painful, and you shouldn't be a bloated, crampy, emotional wreck for the week leading up to it.
So…how to prevent PMS from happening? GET YOUR LIVER QI MOVING, throughout the month, but especially in the week leading up to your period. These techniques can help not only with PMS symptoms, but also with painful periods and discomfort during the flow itself:
- EXERCISE. This is perhaps the most natural way in the world to get your qi circulating throughout your body. Try to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, at least 4 times per week throughout your cycle. Assuming you aren’t training for a game or a race, you can take a break during the period itself.
- CUT THE CAFFEINE HABIT. Research has shown that drinking caffeine may make PMS symptoms worse for many women, based on the receptors it activates in the brain. The best thing is to cut caffeine out of your diet completely. If you can’t manage that, cut your caffeine intake low enough that you won’t get headaches or other symptoms if you stop. And then avoid it completely in the week leading up to your period.
- GET ACUPUNCTURE. Stuck Liver energy is probably the most common pattern I see in clinic – mostly because our Liver energy system is the most easily susceptible to stress, and most of us lead incredibly stressful lives. Regular acupuncture treatments can have a profound effect on helping the Liver energy to circulate better in the body, thereby relieving headaches, PMS, painful periods, irritability, fatigue, bloating, cramping, and muscle tension.
- GIVE YOURSELF ACUPRESSURE. I’m going to teach you how to find the most powerful point on the body, when it comes to moving Liver Qi. It is called “Tai Chong” or “Great Surge” and commonly referred to as Liver 3 (LV3). It is located on the top of the foot, between the 1st and 2nd metatarsal bones. To find it, start at the web between your 1st and 2nd toe. Walk your finger along the fleshy skin between those two bones, up onto the top of the foot. Stop when you hit the point where the two bones join together, and it isn’t fleshy anymore. It will be sore. This is LV3. Put as much pressure on it as you can, when you are PMSing and cranky and bloated and everything seems terribly wrong.
- DRINK MINT TEA. Mint is a wonderful herb that calmly and serenely soothes Liver Qi and helps it circulate. It is also known to have a calming effect, so is great for those mental-emotional aspects of PMS!
- EAT WELL. Stop eating greasy, sugary, or processed foods as much as possible, particularly in the week before your period. These foods have a tendency to make energy flow sluggish…and if your energy is already not flowing properly, this will make everything that much worse!
- GET ENOUGH SLEEP. The week before your period is NOT the time to stay out all night at a social event or pull an all-nighter for that project you have due next week. Budget your time so that you can get a full night’s sleep during the week leading up to your period. The Liver energy and blood is replenished during sleep, so it is vitally important that you give your body that time to ensure that your Liver system is functioning optimally for you during the day.
And don’t forget to breathe.