The Menstrual Cycle
When we speak about your cycle, we use Western medical terminology alongside Chinese medicine terms because most women are more familiar with the menstrual cycle from the Western perspective.
The Menstrual Cycle in Western Medicine
The Western concept of the menstrual cycle identifies a highly orchestrated process co-ordinated by the pituitary gland and controlled by hormones. The menstrual cycle can be divided into three phases: the follicular phase, the ovulatory phase, and the luteal phase.
1. Follicular phase
The follicular phase starts on cycle day 1 of the menstrual cycle, which is the first day of bleeding, and ends when ovulation occurs, usually around mid-cycle.
During the follicular phase a hormone called FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) stimulates the growth of follicles in the ovary. Each cycle, one of these follicles will become a mature egg, and secrete the hormone oestradiol (a form of oestrogen), which causes the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) to thicken in preparation for implantation of a fertilised egg. Oestrogen also causes cervical mucous to change into a watery, stretchy fertile-type mucous just before ovulation.
2. Ovulatory phase
As oestrogen levels peak, a second hormone, LH (Luteinising Hormone) surges, resulting in ovulation – the release of the mature egg from the ovary. The egg then undertakes its journey through the fallopian tube to the uterus.
3. Luteal phase
The luteal phase begins after ovulation and ends with the onset of your next period, usually 14 or so days after you ovulate. Progesterone is the important hormone at this stage of the cycle, completing the development of the endometrium (the uterus lining), ensuring that it is nutrient-rich and has a good blood supply, so that a fertilised egg attempting to implant in the uterus will have a good ‘home’.
If fertilisation and implantation do not occur, the progesterone level falls and the endometrium is shed as the menstrual blood during the period.
The Menstrual Cycle in Chinese Medicine
In Chinese medicine the cycle is divided into two main phases, the ‘yin’ phase and the ‘yang’ phase. The yin phase corresponds to the follicular phase in Western medicine, and the yang phase corresponds to the luteal phase. Yin is the Chinese medicine equivalent to oestrogen, and yang is the equivalent to progesterone. The cervical mucus, the blood, and the endometrium are yin substances and are all oestrogen-dependent. Yang is activity and warmth and reflects the actions of progesterone in the second half of the cycle.
Ovulation occurs when yin has peaked, and yang becomes dominant. A Basal Body Temperature chart is a visual representation of the flux of yin and yang throughout the cycle.
When a woman has balanced yin and yang phases her fertility is heightened and conception occurs readily. In Western medicine we say that her hormones are balanced.
Gynaecology is one of Chinese medicine’s most well-known and appreciated specialties, having a continuous history of practice for over 2,500 years. This long history of fertility treatment has seen the development of a highly refined approach to women’s health. Chinese Medicine offers a very powerful, yet very gentle and safe alternative, to the Western medical treatment of infertility.