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Health & Healing

The Female Cycles: Pathway to Balance

by Kami McBride

We have human bodies. We are governed by cycles as the Earth is governed by seasons and cycles. Just as the Earth travels through summer and winter, day and night, we are also meant to live by seasons and cycles of dark and light, activity and rest. We are biological creatures living on a planet that has many cycles of repose. Our health and well-being requires that we, too, take regular periods of retreat and time out.

Let's look at some basic physiology. Think of the difference between a car and a body. Without gas in the car it doesn't run. When we don't put fuel in the body it isn't like a car — it runs anyway because it has a backup system. When the proper fuel of water, sleep, nutrition, and relaxation is not given to the body it activates a series of hormones that are related to what is called the sympathetic (or stress) part of the nervous system. When we skip meals, when we don't drink water, get enough sleep, or take time to relax, the body perceives this as stressful and stress hormones are released. This system was designed for occasional use — when we had to get away from the tiger in the jungle. We were meant to have intervals of rest in between relying on this system. We were not built to meet up with a tiger in the jungle every day. We have lots of sayings for a lifestyle that relies heavily on our backup stress system; burning the candle at both ends, burnt out, on overload, burning rubber. What we are burning is our stress hormones. This consumes a lot of vital energy and can be thought of as dipping into our energy-retirement fund. We are out of touch with our basic needs and using up our sympathetic nervous system to the point where it affects our daily energy levels and longevity.

When we hear the word "retreat" we think of something we might do on our two-week vacation or for our 50th birthday. Or we might have images of being lazy sitting around watching TV. We are a culture that is obsessed with doing, going and performing, and we take very little time for the thresholds of rest, relaxation, sleep, winter, and dreamtime. A constant "on the go" life relies heavily on our stress backup system and depletes the body's energy reserves. As our energy levels decrease, we often turn to coffee and sugar to keep us going, and then alcohol and other substances to relax. We start to depend on external addictive substances to go through cycles of being energized and relaxed. Settling into a stress-based lifestyle, we disconnect with our natural internal rhythms. Our demands on time, energy and even food and medicine become unbalanced. We lose the ability to listen to what our bodies are telling us and we forget how to nourish and really take care of ourselves.

A great example shows up during the Christmas season. Christmas takes place at the time of Winter Solstice. Most other inhabitants of this planet slow down in the winter. The plants and trees lose their leaves and take their energy underground. Animals slow down — just watch how much more your cat sleeps. During this natural time of rest and retreat we have created the Christmas ritual, which has most of us busier than at any other time of year. The Winter Solstice is a time to vision, dream, and rest. Yet we run around with more obligations than ever. We burn right through the Winter like it was Summer Solstice.

All of this shows up daily in my herbal consultation practice. I see many people forced into honoring the Winter season by getting a cold that puts them in bed.

When we ignore our body cycles and needs it is like eating junk food: you do not instantly drop dead, but 20 to 30 years of it increases the risk of chronic ailments and diminishes vitality. The stress complex that our culture is locked into is making us sick.

Most people know they need to relax and reduce their stress but are not sure how to do it. Taking time out becomes just one more thing on the "to do" list. Where to start? How to make changes that can be incorporated into a schedule that makes sense? What reflections can we find within nature and within our bodies that can guide us toward healthy, sustainable retreat times?

In our busy lives it is often difficult to find ways to take time to rest and regenerate. Our ability to get back to knowing and honoring our bodies' many cyclic needs, including regular times of retreat, depends a lot on how well we can tune in and listen to our body. For women, unraveling this numbing stress treadmill involves returning to some simple concepts through which a healthy relationship with our own body rhythms can be cultivated.

What I have discovered over the years is that when we listen to the female body, it provides us with a model of how to live life more in balance. The menstrual cycle in particular is a powerful gateway through which we can reconnect with our cyclic nature and needs.

Women are cyclical creatures. Our menstrual cycles wax and wane with the moon cycles. The moon shines full and bright and then it is dark, teaching us about the constant change between light and dark, creation and completion, ovulation and menstruation, activity and rest. The new moon waxing to full moon can be associated with the pre-ovulation and ovulation phases of the menstrual cycle. We can compare this to the Earth cycles of spring and summer. The flowers are budding, our hormones are rising, and we are more active in the world. After ovulation, the uterine lining fattens and can be thought of as similar to the autumn harvest with the ripening of the crops. At the onset of menses, the moon goes dark again and our hormones drop. What was an extreme concentration of structure and buildup of energy in the female body turns into total formlessness, flow, and release. It is now wintertime in our body; a time for dreaming, healing, releasing, resting, visioning, and regenerating.

As women we have forgotten the powerful teachings of our female cyclic nature and how tuning into our body offers us a lifestyle that incorporates times of rejuvenation and restoration. There are many factors that contribute to our detachment from the guidance our body offers. It is sometimes difficult for women to find their way back to the wisdom of this natural internal rhythm when much of the cultural programming is to deny, suppress, and pathologize most female-cycle changes.

When we start to unravel how most women have been trained to take care of and think about their body changes, it is no wonder that we have forgotten how to follow our own cycles as a pathway of balance in our busy lives. We stuff ourselves into schedules that do not reflect our cycles. We drug and suppress the majority of our body changes. Most of us were not initiated into a place of knowledge about how our cycles work. It is usually a crash course the whole way along. We were not taught that our cycle has importance and plays a valuable role in our health and well-being. We were not inspired with a sense of sacredness about the female body process. No one initiated us into the mysteries of our body by telling us that menstrual blood is the source from which all human life is created. We weren't taught that the female body cycles through many changes, each of which provide experiences that can be cultivated into wisdom and experience that can help us in our daily lives. We definitely were not told that the female cycles hold tremendous spiritual power and healing.

Menstruation is inconvenient at best and to be drugged or ignored. Unless you want to get pregnant, fertility is to be totally controlled. Most birth control methods such as the pill, shots, and the patch alter or completely suppress ovulation. There are 60 million American women taking birth control pills even though the pill has been linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Menopause is pathologized into a bunch of possibly dreadful symptoms that need hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Most conventional HRT treatment keeps women at a level of hormonal balance similar to that of the pre-ovulatory spring and summer phase of her cycle. Long term HRT is also associated with many health risks. Women get fed up with all of this, and an astounding 600,000 hysterectomies a year are performed in the United States.

I have listened to hundreds of women tell their stories of how they relate to and handle the cycling changes of their bodies. When I ask women about their experience of menarche (first menstruation) there are basically three answers. Most women say, "I don't remember." The next most common responses are, "It was no big deal," or "I hated it and wished that I was a boy." These are dangerous answers to such an important time in a girl's life. Most U.S. girls are initiated into menstruation with shame, hiding, and "it was no big deal." This creates an environment of disassociation from their bodies, leaving them susceptible to poor self-image, unconsciousness surrounding other major body changes, painful menstrual experiences, and disconnection from their cyclic nature.

There are cultures throughout the world that have held menarche as a sacred time during which a girl is to be honored and celebrated. How would our menstrual and menopausal experiences be different if we were loved, celebrated, and educated during the time of our first menses? In honoring our menstrual cycle, how would this change the way we approach other body cycles and needs?

All aspects of our female cycles are related. Menarche, menstruation, and menopause are a continuum of interconnected experiences. Our relationship with the cycles of our wombs begins with menarche. How we are initiated (or not) into menarche has a profound effect on how we understand menstruation. The attitude with which we menstruate for 35 years or more sets the stage for our menopausal experience. We call our menstrual time "curse" and "the rag." These negative image names create neural pathways in the body that shape our physical experiences. We can start to heal our relationship with our cyclic nature by changing what we call our menstrual time. Some of the names my students have come up with are: Moon Time, Sacred Womb Time, Sacred Moon Blood, Red Tide, and Magical Moon Time. Women often leave our Women's Wisdom workshop saying things like, "I can't wait for my next moon cycle."

Designing Your Connection to Your Female Cycle
  1. Get a moon calendar and track you menstrual cycle in relation to the moon.
  2. Create space during menstruation to allow your body to do whatever it wants.
  3. Try to schedule some of your days off in a way that supports and reflects the needs of your menstrual cycle.
  4. Give yourself a lavender foot bath when you begin bleeding each month.
  5. Give menstruation a name that has positive meaning for you.

We can only guess at the cultural significance of not having women initiated into their cycles with a sense of knowledge, respect, and empowerment. What I do know is that women do not pay attention to many of their bodies' needs, and I see the direct effects in terms of uncomfortable physical symptoms in relation to menstruation and menopause. The overdrive lifestyle is just one aspect of our lives that could be recalibrated when women re-align their lifestyle with their body cycles. The denial of the female cycle has vast social implications. If women were more connected with their body cycles the culture could begin to entrain with them and we might all find more balance in our lives.

In her book Women's Mysteries, Esther Harding writes, "In primitive communities seclusion was often prescribed for all women, who did not have to become ill (PMS) in order to participate in the advantages to be gained from a period of quiet each month."

As we begin to honor our female body changes women can move into a new place of knowledge about their physiology and respect for their cyclic nature. We will find a new balance in our ability to take time to reconnect with ourselves. We will find new ways of retreating to restore balance in finding what truly nourishes and sustains us. We will have a renewed understanding of how to bring restoration and balance to the communities and world around us.

Kami McBride has taught "Women's Wisdom: Well-Being for Menstruation, Fertility and Menopause" for over ten years. Contact, (707) 446-1290