the science + symbolism

of menstruation

m e n s t r u a t i o n →

p h a s e  o n e

of the female reproductive cycle

Theme →Release + Restoration + Reflection + Rest 

Season + Day→Winter + Night

Element→ Water

Moon Phase→New Moon

Womanhood→Postpartum + Post-Menopause + The Crone

 

i n t r o d u c t i o n 

The first day of menstruation is day 1 of a new cycle. In a 28 day cycle this would consist of Day 1 to Day 7. However it typically lasts anywhere from 3-7 days, and ultimately varies from woman to woman, and often cycle to cycle. The onset of menstruation simultaneously marks the end of a previous cycle and the beginning of a new cycle. Out of a death comes a new beginning. That truly is the essence of menstruation. 

Often, menstruation is the phase women already have some level of awareness and understanding around. Likely because there are visible changes we can see. Because it is a visible change, menstruation is a great place to start getting even moreintimate with. Because blood rites, including menstruation, are highly repressed in modern western culture, remembering to honor this phase first and foremost, is of priority. The very cycle that created every single person you know, allowing for the gestation and birth of human beings, has somehow become taboo.Something to plug up, drug up, and hide. Our cycle is the ultimate symbol of our femininity, literally what makes us biologically female. It is this cycle that we must reclaim, protect, nurture within ourselves and within our communities. Starting with menstruation.

If we can learn to honor this phase amongst a society that teaches us to dishonor and ignore it, we can begin to live in deeper harmony and reverence to all of our cycles as women. The monthly cycle of the female body, the cycles and initiations  throughout womanhood, and the greater cycles of the earth we cycle within. This is our ecology we are here to reclaim. Because learning to navigate our inner cycles guides and informs how navigate the outer world.

Learning to love and honor our menstruation, is how we grow into women who honor our other rites; pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum, menopause, miscarriage, menarche, and abortion. Who honor the earth. In ourselves, our sisters, daughter, mothers, and so on. 

h o r m o n e s

During menstruation our hormones begin at an all time low. At the start of menstruation, progesterone and estrogen are at their lowest. As the cycle progresses, estrogen slowly begins to rise. Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormones (LH) also start to rise as we move closer to ovulation. This rise in FSH supports the initial development of ovarian follicles. Progesterone will not begin to rise until the second half of our cycle, after ovulation. 

 

p h y s i o l o g y

Throughout our cycle, both our uterus & ovaries undergo a series of changes in response to our hormones.

u t e r i n e  a c t i v i t y

In short, menstruation is triggered by the cessation of the hormone progesterone. Because menstruation is "day 1", what causes it is in response to events that occurred at the end of the previous cycle (pre - menstruation). Therefore, to understand menstruation we first need to look backwards and understand what happens before it. 

Progesterone is the hormone responsible for maintaining + nurturing the uterine lining (before menstruation) in order to create a hospitable environment for a fertilized egg (leading up to, and partially after ovulation). If our egg is not fertilized after ovulation, progesterone levels drop due to the disintegration of the corpus luteum (follicular body left behind after ovulation). As progesterone levels decrease, the inner lining of our uterus can no longer maintain itself and thus begins to break down and shed, initiating menstruation.

During this time, the endometrial cells of the uterus are making large amounts of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are associated with  muscle constriction and pain. As the uterus begins to break down and shed, these prostaglandins are released. In response, the muscles within our blood vessels and uterus begin to constrict and contract. The contractions occurring in the uterus are what we call "cramps". As the blood vessels that supply the uterus narrow and constrict, blood flow is restricted thus further contributing to the breakdown of the innermost  lining of the uterus. 

Menstrual fluid consists of 1-4 oz (30-120ml) of blood,  tissue, mucus, and epithelial (skin) cells. When we menstruate, the innermost lining of our uterus (the endometrium) sheds.  Bleeding is an essential part of keeping our uterus healthy, fresh, and fertile. As we learn more about our cycle, we begin to recognize how each part of the cycle is essential to the whole. This releasing of old tissue is what allows for the future replenishment  of new tissue as the cycle progresses. Bleeding literally cleanses our womb of dead cells, allowing our fertility cycle to begin again. Through this sweeping and releasing of old tissue, we tend to our inner soil, nurturing it back to the necessary conditions to support the gestation of creation. Whether that be a human, or other acts of creation. 

o v a r i a n  a c t i v i t y

We must remember the "aim" of our cycle (regardless of our own intentions or preferences) is to support and maintain a pregnancy. While our womb (uterus) maintains the necessary conditions for implantation and gestation of a fertilized egg, our ovaries are simultaneously undergoing a cycle of their own as they store and develop our seeds of creation. Developing + releasing an egg that will travel down our fallopian tubes awaiting fertilization.

Durning the first half of our cycle (menstruation + pre-ovulation), our ovaries are at work preparing for ovulation. From the start of menstruation to the time of ovulation, our follicles race to develop into the largest + most dominant follicle. Each follicle houses an egg that will eventually burst and be released in order to travel down our fallopian tubes and into our uterus awaiting fertilization. This momentous event, where the egg busts out from its mother follicle is called ovulation. The moments our ovaries have all been waiting for ! 

During menstruation, under the influence follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), our follicles begin to undergo this development. Though it is important to note that during menstruation FSH is still quite low. Thus the latter end of this development occurs during the next phase of our cycle (pre-menstruation / follicular phase). Every cycle about 15-20 follicles start to mature within each ovary.  Each getting more mature and closer to becoming the most developed follicle with each cycle. Once a follicle ovulates its egg, FSH declines, and other processes take over until the next cycle. 

Thus, during menstruation the follicles housing our eggs within our ovaries are just beginning their process of development. This race to ovulation begins at menstruation. So even though the start of menstruation marks the lowest point in our cycle (hormonally and physically in our womb), our hormones slowly start to increase as they facilitate the development of our ovarian follicles. Thus, as menstruation marks an all time low in our cycle, each day subsequents encompasses a rising + waxing energy. Out of the darkness, we slowly grow in our light. 

p s y c h e

 

 

The feelings and physical changes associated with menstruation are in part, due to progesterone and estrogen being so low. In addition to this, the loss of blood and iron can cause us to more feel tired and fatigued in comparison to other phases of our cycle. The hormonal concentrations and physiologic changes associated with them often makes us feel more inward and introspective. Here we desire + require more rest, physically restorative movement, and nutritiously dense nourishment. Overall, when we menstruate, we often feel called to move about the world in a  s l o w e r  p a c e  and from a more  i n t e r n a l  s p a c e. 

This is the period of absolute darkness we go though each approximate month. However, we have been raised to disown this part of our cycle. We often feel that "we are our best selves" during the first half of our cycle, especially ovulation. This is because these are the more yang or "masculine" times of our cycle. During the yang aspects of our cycle, we often feel more social, have more energy, and are more apt at being productive. Which are all qualities that are of course, more accepted in western systems of patriarchy and capitalism. This is our task of the times. To honor all aspects of our cycle, and therefore ourselves. Both the light and the dark. Increasing our intimacy with menstruation helps us with this. 

This hormonal low, particularly progesterone, has been shown to substantially impact the pathways of connectivity in our brain. Throughout our cycle, in response to changing levels of progesterone, our brain literally changes ! Progesterone has been found to increase connectivity in our brain. Thereby, increasing communication between our left and right brain hemispheres. This means we can analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information in a different, and often less linear way. Making connections we were not previously able to perceive.

This presents an opportunity to for us to develop new ideas and reflect on our life. Our lifestyle. Our relationships. Our career. The list goes on. This may look differently for each woman, during each cycle, as well as during different times of our life. Sometimes this may be very intentional, and other times seeds, set intentions, new beginnings, and endings, tend to happen on their own accord during this sacred window of our cycle. I often find myself intuitively responding to my cycle in this way, rather than mentally taking the time to sit down and rigidly conceptualize "what this next cycle will be about". So I invite you to become open to this process happening on its own as you  bare witness & support yourself through this journey of self trust and guidance. The body is simple and it often understands what our mind hasn't yet transcribed into knowing. Regardless of the details, this is an opportune time to allow ourselves to explore our thoughts and feelings about our life. What may need changing, as well as what is truly serving us.In the same way that menstruation initiates our cycle to both begin and end, we are also invited to initiate our own endings and beginnings. 

Menstruation is a sacred window of respite we all desperately deserve to have. And it is not only within our best interest, but also within the best interest of our families, communities, and society at large to honor. When we take this time to rest + digest our thoughts and feelings about our life, we are then able to better resource ourselves and bring more aim, intention, and focus to the more outward, expressive, and action oriented times of our cycle. Because we are more sensitive during this time, we are literally more  s e n s i t i z e d to our desires + needs. May we invite the spaciousness into our lives as we invite + open ourselves up to the wisdom of this sensitivity. 

When truly honored, menstruation can inform how we  guide ourselves into action, thereby allowing us to operate in a more efficient & authentic manner. After all, what good is " getting things done" if we don't even want those things? Honoring menstruation offers our psyche the intuitive wisdom of how to bring more authenticity into our lives. In this light, we can see how this time of release and rest is just as important and essential to the whole as any other time in our cycle. May we learn to appreciate, honor, and celebrate these more peripheral aspects of our cycle, psyche, and being. 

 

s y m b o l i c  l e a r n i n g s

Menstruation is a time of rest, replenishment, restoration & reflection. An opportune time to receive internal guidance as well as nurturance from our loved ones as we traverse this deeply internal landscape. Menstruation is the ultimate feminine aspect of our cycle that in-forms (literally brings into form) the masculine aspects of our cycle. The internal inspiration we receive during menstruation guides our external actions during pre-ovulation + ovulation. Menstruation is a time when we sit with the altar of our body to receive inspiration and wisdom that is internally guided. 

Menstruation  physically and energetically cleanses our seat of creation, laying fertile ground for the fertility cycles of our womb and our psyche to begin again. In addition to honoring ourselves in real time, honoring this time every month creates strong pathways for us to effectively honor ourselves when we undergo the postpartum period of motherhood (if we decide to and can have children) and post-menopause.

e l e m e n t → 

w a t e r 

 

The element associated with menstruation is water. In Chinese medicine water is associated with both life and death. In the same way that our bleeding marks both the end of a previous cycle and the beginning of a new one, so does water. Water is the womb from which life emerges and ends. Our cycle of menstruation is literally what allows for the creation of life. Menstruation itself, is a passing of dead substance, that also fertilizes the womb for future creation. And when we are not using this cycle to create a life, we instead, harness this creative energy for other aspects of creation. Where imagination thrives. Water is the bridge between life and death, and the connector of death and re-birth. 

Water's action, is non action. Potential or stored energy versus kinetic or moving energy. Water + menstruation is a time of absolute yin, passivity, rest, and receptivity. This is the void, pause, or interlude where we meet our inner elder by the proverbial fire. Each approximate month, we lay our guards down, open ourselves, and kneel to this place of inner ceremony. Here we enter the altered consciousness of menstruation, the water state, where we commune with the great mystery, inner self, and seeds of creativity. Menstruation is a call to introvert ourselves in order to rest + enter a state of reverie for the sacredness of existence.

This is our inner baptism. Physically of course, but also emotionally and energetically. Our agent + ally of renewal. Water demands we rest in exact proportion that we extend ourselves. Water is the place were we integrate this balance, and nourish ourselves in the same way that water nourishes life. 98% of our body is water. It is in our body, bones, and the air that we breathe. Water gives nourishment to our cells, and to the plants and animals that nourish us in return. Our inner water, calls us to do the same. To nourish ourselves and allow ourselves to be nourished.

In the Chinese medicine creation cycle, water is the child of metal. Where menstruation is symbolized by water, pre-menstruation is represented by metal. As you will discover in the section where I discuss pre-menstruation, metal governs the process of distillation. And therefore, menstruation is the result from this process of distillation we underwent during our pre-menstrual phase. Water is this process of completion where we integrate everything. After we have evaluated and distilled our experiences, we now return to a state of re-assessing our current state. Menstruation is our inner north, our directing force that distills wisdom out of the refinement from our pre-menstrual (metal) phase.

m o o n →

n e w / d a r k 

 

 

Our water, our winter, our dark moon. Our bleeding time is mirrored in the dark phase of the moon's cycle. In the same way that our menses marks the beginning of a new menstrual cycle, the dark moon marks the start of a new moon cycle. When the earth's shadow hides the light of the moon for retreat and rest. Traditionally, the moon represents the subconscious, the otherworld, and the feminine. Like menstruation, the new moon is an opportune time to set intentions, plant seeds, and let go of what is no longer serving us. 

Like the new moon, the beginning of menstruation is a great time to initiate new projects, as this marks the beginning of a new cycle. Planting seeds, creating new ideas, and setting intentions are all actions that are complementary to this phase. While our body physiologically prepares new "eggs"  (ideas / intentions) for future ovulation (action / manifestation), we are invited to do the same. 

If we no longer menstruate due to hysterectomy, menopause, or other reasons, following the cycles of the moon can help us reconnect us to our cyclic nature. If this is the case, each new moon would be treated as menstruation. A time for rest + replenishment + retreat. A time to sink into the void, and allow our intentions for this next cycle to arise. 

 

s e a s o n + d a y →

w i n t e r  +  n i g h t 

 

 

Like winter, menstruation is a time of absolute yin. A time of restoration and reflection. A time of latency, dormancy, and retreat. The dark hours and cold temperatures call us in. Into ourselves, into warmth, into inner nourishment. The cold from winter has the effect of minimizing activity and thus allowing plants and animals to conserve their resources for the more active seasons. Menstruation calls us to do the same. A time of retreat, hibernation, and receptivity of resources. Where in autumn (pre-menstruation) we harvested and took stalk, in winter we receive and rest into this bounty. This is a time of storage and potential energy where if we rest, we can revitalize and redirect our inner resources in an authentic and efficient way. 

Not only do we do this every winter and every menstruation, but we do this every night we retreat into sleep. In the period of a 24 hour day, menstruation corresponds to night + sleep. In the same way that we go to sleep each night to rest and restore our energy  for the next day, we menstruate to rest and restore our energy for our next cycle. At night, our cells, tissues, and organs enter a state of rest as our nervous system submerges into a parasympathetic metabolic state allowing them to repair. 

Menstruation is our true north. A time where we are deeply sensitized and attuned to our inner compass. Where we have greater access to this part of ourselves that assess and decides what comes next. Like winter, menstruation sets the tone for our entire cycle. Where we remedy ourselves from the challenges of the last, and resource ourselves from the challenges of the next. This is our cure for burn out, procrastination, and numbing out. By deeply tending to our inner winter, we balm ourselves in loving resilience that carries us through our entire cycle. To the degree that we rest  during our inner winter, is to the same degree that we bloom and bear fruit during our spring and summer.

Like plants and animals do during winter, we women also commune with our deepest potential here. If we don't allow ourselves this time to hibernate and exist in dormancy, we will have no life in us come spring (follicular phase). 

 

w o m a n  w h e e l → 

p o s t p a r t u m  &  p o s t - m e n o p a u s e  

+  t h e  c r o n e

Honoring this time every month creates strong pathways for us to effectively resource + honor ourselves during subsequent biological rites of passage as women. In particular the lessons + stories we hold from menstruation, lead us through the journey of postpartum and post-menopause. 

As ___ states "what we learn at the altar of menstruation, we bring to the altar of childbirth". This couldn't be more true. The relationship we create to our body +  our cycle during our menstruating years transcribes into the relationship that awaits us when we traverse other stages of initiation unique to women. When menstruation is experienced with understanding, respect, and reverence, we are better prepared to endure the transformation of menopause and postpartum with more acceptance and grace. Wisdom gathered from menstruation translates into the exact medicine we'll need when we traverse these later landscape.

From a nonlinear perspective, all of the blood rites connect. But when we begin to specify and categorize each phase of our cycle to other phases of initiation as women, we see that menstruation is closely related to both post-menopause and the postpartum. And that each of these biological rites of passage are reflected in the archetype of the crone.

Childbirth and postpartum are characterized by a release, much like menstruation is. The blood rites of menstruation, childbirth, and postpartum embody this "releasing " uterine energy. In contrast to "held" or " gestating" uterine energy as seen in pregnancy and when our uterine lining is growing in thickness. When our uterus and energetic body are experiencing these releases, we need more rest and nourishing food, and nurturing. These releases, call us back into our body, our internal world, our place of retreat. A release that calls us to sink into the wisdom of surrender. 

During postpartum, we have endured the rite of pregnancy and childbirth. After menopause, we have endured the experience of menopause. During menstruation, we have gone through the tension that accompanies pre-menstruation and have also completed one menstrual cycle. During all of these blood rites, we have navigated a challenge, endured transformation, and now have wisdom to both integrate and share. After having endured these unique experiences, our lense is now from the overview. Where we have gained the insight into larger and broader perspectives. This is the energy of the crone. 

Opposite on the wheel to the crone, is the mother. The mother nurtures her child, where in contrast the crone nurtures society. During menstruation, we learn to nurture and mother ourselves. We cannot nurture ourselves, a child, or a community, without having learned to trust ourselves. This faith in trusting our own inner knowing is thematic of the crone archetype. We trust our in bodies to give birth and our instincts in childrearing.  We surrender our former identities and aging selves after menopause. And during menstruation, we learn to have faith in our experiences during each cycle and the wisdom gained during our journey. Accept this ending, and have faith in this new beginning. Where we dance within the mystery of being a woman. Inside of this inner faith is an ability to trust our inner compass, and our ability to create our own value system. 

As stated earlier, each of these rites exist out of having endured a transformation, where we have crossed some sort of bridge within ourselves. Thus, the crone is one who bridges the gap between the personal and the universal (the women's wheel of life pg. 186), holding tension between her inner and outer worlds. This is that altered state of consciousness we ride in after having a baby, menopause, and during our monthly bleed. When we sew the seeds of our own rebirth, we are embodying our inner crone.