Written by John Immel,
Menstrual Cycle Phases & DigestionThe menstrual cycle can affect both digestion and elimination. Many women typically experience constipation, gas, and bloating before their period and then diarrhea once their cycle begins. These symptoms may be accompanied by heaviness, mood swings, acne, cramping and fatigue at one point or another in their cycle. While lamentable, these symptoms are important clues which can reveal underlying, systemic imbalances in your body.
First, we'll note that hormonal changes not only affect your reproductive system; they also affect your entire circulatory and nervous system. The gut is greatly affected by blood flow and highly innervated. Second, note the similarity between the uterus and the gut: they are both smooth muscle tissue. So, it is only natural that the hormones which affect blood flow, nerves, and smooth muscle tissue will affect your GI as well.
Many women do not even notice that their digestive symptoms correlate with their cycle, but they do! Western medicine even recognizes that hormones affect digestion, but the biochemical jury is still out on exactly how. To boot, your symptoms may differ from those presented here, as everyone has a unique body. Track your bowel habits through your cycle to find your unique patterns. Most period tracking phone apps allow for this. Concurrently, keep a food journal to see what foods aggravate symptoms. The first step to improving your digestive health throughout your cycle is building awareness.
It's impossible to talk about menstrual cycle in Ayurveda without introducing the system of apana vayu, a function of Vata governing downward flow in the body. Apana vayu controls the muscles designed to release the four F's: flatus, fetus, feces, and fluids (urine and here, menses). Sometimes, such as when you are anxious, apana vayu holds things in. Other times, such as when you are relaxed, it releases. When overactive, apana vayu causes excessive release (frequent stools). Apana vayu can also relax too much, causing stagnation. We'll soon see how this relates to menstruation. Menstruation, incidentally, is the function of rajah vaha srotas in Ayurvedic anatomy.
Regardless of when digestive problems occur during your cycle, eat easy to digest foods whenever symptoms occur. Also, include high-fiber foods, whole grains, and cooked vegetables to stay regular. Generally avoid sugar because sugar can create hyperglycemia (excess blood sugar) and the volatility of blood sugar levels will lead to more instability in mood and more intense cramping.
Your Body Early in Your CycleThe first phase of the menstrual cycle, from Ayurveda's point of view, is the building phase which starts when menstruation ends and lasts until ovulation, or days 5-13 of the cycle. This phase loosely corresponds with the follicular phase in Western medicine, the pre-fertile time. Estrogen is on the rise which triggers ripening of the egg and building of the uterine lining. The building effects of estrogen make this part of the cycle the Kapha phase. Generally, women do not have digestive problems during this time, although Kapha women may notice slightly longer bowel transit times.
Eat a light, Kapha pacifying diet with plenty of green veggies and legumes during this building phase where you are estrogen dominant. Avoid salt and dairy to prevent water retention, sluggishness, and congestion later in your cycle. As your body temperature is cool during the building phase, favor warming spices.
The Pitta phase occurs during days 13-18. This is the fertile phase of cycle around ovulation. Estrogen peaks early in this phase and progesterone is on the rise. Digestive complaints are not commonly reported during this phase of the menstrual cycle either. Ovulation affords the most flexibility in your diet because your body is generally strongest and most exuberant at this time, so have fun! You'll feel your best and your skin may be glowing.
Digestive Problem #1: Heaviness, Sluggish Digestion & Slow Bowels After OvulationDigestive problems generally occur in the Vata phase of your cycle (days 18-4). Symptoms start with mild heaviness and sluggishness as progesterone peaks (days 18-22). Foods that stimulate the release of bile such as bitters are helpful during this phase to keep things moving.
Right after ovulation your body is holding things in. During this phase your body makes more progesterone to prepare the womb for fertilization. It doesn't want to lose the egg! For many women, this means sluggish bowels and water retention starting four days after ovulation, at the end of the fertile phase (day 18). Progesterone peaks at the end of the fertile phase and then slowly declines.
Studies show that, during this time, gastrointestinal transit time was significantly longer. when compared with the follicular phase (after menses). The reason is that progesterone is a smooth muscle relaxant which reduces spasm. As a muscle relaxant, it is commonly given to pregnant women to delay labor and preterm birth - it's relaxing effects are so effective that it can reduce uterine contractions. Unfortunately, this has a frustrating side effect of slowing down contractions of the bowel as well.
Note: Studies also show that estrogen can make the bowels sluggish. Estrogen is highest just before ovulation, but is high through this phase as well. Estrogen seems to affect the sigmoid colon (the end of the colon) more than the cecum (beginning of the colon).
Apana vayu is excessively relaxed due to these hormones and lacking in tone, resulting in stagnation. Food slowly moves through the GI tract causing gas. The buildup can make you feel bloated and backed up. These symptoms of sluggish digestion correlate with manda agni (slow digestive fire) and are associated with Kapha dosha.
The sluggishness affects a variety of sites including the colon, gallbladder, and lower esophageal sphincter or LES (the valve that prevents stomach acid from going up into the esophagus). Sluggishness of the LES can lead to acid reflux. A sluggish gallbladder creates bile deficiency which also causes constipation. A natural laxative, bile accelerates bowel transit time by irritating the walls of the intestines. A deficiency of bile creates constipation for both Vata and Kapha body types. In this case, stools will be light colored.
So, if you have sluggish bowels, acid reflux, or light colored stools the cause may be hormonal. Bitter taste can help Kapha clients because it increases bile flow, and contraction of intestinal muscles. A stimulating herbal laxative such as Motil-Colon Stimulant Laxative can be supportive.
Vata individuals should use a smaller amount of bitter taste together with some sour taste. Sour taste is more supportive for light, dry Vata individuals because it both increases bile flow and directly lubricates the intestines.
In all constitutions, a teaspoon of olive oil can also help get their bile flowing again. Pungent taste may offer needed stimulation during this phase. High fiber is supportive. Rye bread contains a type of fiber that, when fermented in the intestines, causes the intestine to contract. This makes rye bread ideal for sluggish bowels. Take care to ensure that your rye bread doesn't have wheat. If it does, try cooking a morning gruel with rye berries and cranberry!
Twisting yoga poses and vigorous pranayama like kapala bhati can keep things moving during this stage.
Digestive Problem #2: Constipation & Gas in Premenstrual Phase (Cold Vata Type)From day 22 until just before menses on day 28, constipation and gas are dominant as progesterone and estrogen hit their low point. The drop in hormones leads to low body temperature, general blood stasis, and dryness. This creates coldness and dryness in the GI tract as well. Vata is high during this catabolic phase of the cycle where the uterine lining is deteriorating. This phase is characterized by vishama agni (irregular digestion associated with Vata). You may be feeling bloated and backed up.
Many women experience cramping with the constipation that occurs just before their period. The cramping is caused by ischemia (inadequate blood supply) to the uterus, which makes the uterus sore.
If you have an excess of gas during the latter part of your cycle, it can lead to a build up of ama or toxicity. This toxicity shows up as acne and can also intensify uterine colic and cramping when menstruation starts. So, it's important to address gassiness if you have it. The constipation, gas, and bloating resolves when menstruation starts.
Adding salt to your diet will likely be helpful during the latter phase of your cycle and during menses. Salt softens stools, counteracts dryness, and rebuilds electrolytes lost with menses. Follow a Vata pacifying diet including warming, supportive foods like soups and stews to nourish your body during this phase. Your appetite for burgers and other blood builders may be strongest right before you begin bleeding as your body prepares for menses. Avoid raw foods and legumes.
Eat easy to digest foods if you are experiencing gas and bloating. Warming, vasodilating herbs such as dong quai, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, and manjistha will encourage blood flow to the uterus during this phase. A hot water bottle to the abdomen also encourages blood flow and alleviates constriction.
Vata pacifying, moisturizing herbs like licorice root and marshmallow root will be helpful to lubricate the intestines for smooth bowel movements. A mild, supportive laxative such as Gentle Laxative Tea will encourage regular flow and keep your system detoxified.
To stabilize your mood, roast or bake sweeter root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots as a bit of sweetness will relieve irritability due to your estrogen dip. Complex carbs such as whole grains also help stabilize your mood. Hyperglycemia and volatility of blood sugar levels, on the other hand, will create more instability and discomfort, so avoid refined sugars and flours.
Vitex, turmeric, thyme, and oregano all increase progesterone which can help you to feel more comfortable as can supplementing with vitamin B. Magnesium supplements have been shown to relieve cramps and constipation as it helps your system relax.
Belly breathing, massage and gentle movement can help keep things moving during this stage.
Digestive Problem #3: Purging during menstrual cycle (Pitta Type)Things are flowing out when you are menstruating. That includes the bowels. So, frequent bowel movements and softer stools may coincide with bleeding during menses days 1-3. Apana vayu is fully active and may be overactive! You may also notice that you are peeing more during this phase, since a drop in hormones means the end of water retention.
For some people, this natural cleanse of fluids and the bowels releases all the heaviness they've been feeling prior to menses. Suddenly, they feel light and refreshed. For others, especially Vata individuals who may already be deficient and dehydrated, this phase leaves them feeling exhausted, depleted, and cold.
Loose stools during menses are caused by prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are known as 'local hormones.' They play a role in the normal injury process. When any part of the body is damaged, the damaged cells produce prostaglandins which makes the body more sensitive to pain. This is true for the uterus as well, which increases the pain of menstrual cramping. Western medicine relieves these symptoms using NSAIDS (aspirin, etc) because these block prostaglandins, reducing nerve sensitivity.
The endometrial cells in the lining of uterus produce lots of prostaglandins just before your period begins, which are released as the uterine lining breaks down. During menses, the surge of prostaglandins causes contraction of the uterus. The uterus is a muscle, and just like all muscles it can contract and relax. The contractions help expel the sloughed uterine lining during the bleeding phase of menstruation. Unfortunately, during a contraction, blood supply to the uterus is cut off, which deprives the muscle of oxygen. The result is soreness and lactic acid build up, similar to soreness in any muscle after prolonged use (such as running, lifting a heavy object, etc). This causes you to experience cramps.
The more prostaglandins a women has, the more pain and bleeding she will have during menses. This is because prostaglandins cause vasodilation. Unfortunately, some rogue prostaglandins make their way into the bloodstream and over to the GI tract, where they can cause contractions of the intestines causing frequent evacuation. Loose stools or diarrhea are common during menses. Prostaglandins also cause headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Since the prostaglandins released increase pain sensitivity, inflammation, and diarrhea, Ayurveda suggests that this condition is both a vata and a pitta imbalance.
If you're the type that feels exhausted during your period, remember that as tired as you feel when menstruating, that's how tired your digestive system is. So, eat easy to digest, fiber rich, nurturing foods during this time. Replenish electrolytes lost from menstrual blood and loose stools with coconut water or a banana, lime and coconut smoothie.
If you have diarrhea during menses, heavy bleeding, and painful periods, you may need a vata-pitta pacifying diet and lifestyle that will support and soothe your body, as well as reduce the effects of prostaglandins. Ashokarishta-Menstrual Tonic is a classic Ayurvedic formula to relieve menstrual symptoms. Limit alcohol and other vasodilators like cloves during menses as these can increase bleeding. Alcohol & coffee are inflammatory and may increase pain and cramping. Rice pudding and other sweet comfort foods are on the menu! Continue to avoid refined sugar, however.
Minimize processed foods and animal fats which both increase the negative prostaglandins (these are known as series two prostaglandins) which cause inflammation, increased pain perception and womb contraction. It's also best to avoid fried foods - your liver is busy processing lots of hormones.
Favor foods that encourage positive prostaglandins (known as series 1 and series 3) which are anti-inflammatory. Such foods are those that are high in linoleic acid including tuna, salmon, evening primrose oil, and starflower oil. Other foods that generally pacify Pitta and reduce inflammation include green veggies, blueberries, cranberries, turmeric, and foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids such as ghee, coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, flax and chia seeds.
B vitamins also help create more anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. The bromelain found in pineapples may also bring you relief. Calcium may also work to slow elimination down.
Ama Makes it All WorseAma is toxicity, often related to fermentation and gas in the digestive tract. When ama is present, cramping may be increased. Ama can also disrupt hormones and increase prostaglandins. Apana vayu, as mentioned, governs the release of feces, urine, flatus, fetus and menstrual blood. When working properly, apana vayu ensures the smooth wavelike contractions of smooth muscle tissue. The synchronous contraction of uterus and bowels causes smooth elimination of menses and bowels. When ama is present, this synchrony may be lost. When not working properly, muscles become colicky, contracting irregularly. This causes tension and cramping.
For these reasons, the first step to regulating the menstrual cycle is always a simple cleanse. The easiest way to cleanse is by reducing sugar, caffeine & alcohol in your diet. Or, if you aren't menstruating and have a few days where you can take it easy, eat a light diet of kitchari.
Get some gentle movement in, but don't push your body to its physical limits. Eating an easy to digest meal like kitchari for a few days allows the digestive system to reset and enhances your agni. A stronger digestive fire will burn up residual toxins. A laxative can also be helpful before menstruation to flush out toxins. Avoid laxatives during menstruation.
Antispasmodics like dark chocolate and aromatic herbs like asafoetida & cinnamon can help relax the uterus when contractions become too strong or colicky. The herb Cramp bark is ideal.
Your menstrual cycle should not be a painful experience. Don't ever accept digestive discomfort as a norm. Rather, use the remedies outlined in this article to address your specific problems and find relief.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. His online course Balance Your Ayurvedic Diet in a Week provides tools for gracefully healing with Ayurveda to thousands. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
Questions, Comments & Impressions of 'how your menstrual cycle affects digestion'?Is there something you'd like to know about 'how your menstrual cycle affects digestion'?
(4.80 out of 5 stars) 5 reviews, 56 likes
I wish I had known this when I was menstruating. It explains so many symptoms that I had during my cycle.
Please pass it on to others who might benefit!