As teenagers, few of us had mothers or grandmothers who taught us to celebrate our monthly cycles, to embrace the power we receive from our menstrual blood, or to use our cycles as a means of gauging our physical and emotional health.
As I got older, I tried to look at my monthly cycles in a more positive light. I eventually came to see my body as a microcosm of the universe. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, the tides ebb and flow, the sun rises and sets, so too does my body move through the stages of a cycle—from ovulation to menstruation, from lightness of being to a dark, moody time, from creativity to reflection. I noticed that I am much more outgoing and energized midcycle, around ovulation time, and often need to go inward—even push people away—just before my period starts. This seems especially true at those times when my cycle corresponds to the phases of the moon; that is, I bleed during the darkness of the new moon and ovulate as the moon comes into its fullness. For me, the cycle of menstruation has become a symbol of my connection to the natural rhythms of the universe rather than something to dread each month.
A Delicate Balance
If you consider how our menstrual cycles work, it's not such an outlandish notion that our emotions and our bodily functions could be so entwined with nature's cadence. It all starts in the pineal gland, hidden deep within the dark recesses of the brain, behind the eyes. This tiny, teardrop-shaped gland responds to changes in light and darkness, and produces the hormone melatonin that helps us sleep at night. According to British herbalist Amanda McQuade Crawford, this gland not only registers and responds to the amount of natural and artificial light we're exposed to on a daily basis, but also signals seasonal changes. The pineal gland's responsibility is to alert the hypothalamus to begin the menstrual cycle. The hypothalamus itself is a very sensitive part of the endocrine system. According to McQuade Crawford, this "blobby cluster" sits close to our emotional center—the limbic region of the brain—and can react adversely to emotional upheaval or physical illness. When the hypothalamus is healthy, it performs its duties quite well: It provides the pituitary gland with what it needs to produce important hormones for reproduction. When compromised, however, the hypothalamus may give out erroneous or incomplete information, causing the pituitary to manufacture either too much or not enough female hormones, throwing the body off balance.
The hormones that the pituitary produces, FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone), in turn are responsible for the production of estrogen and progesterone, respectively, in the ovaries. Secreted in various amounts during the entire cycle, estrogen is at its highest level during the first half of our cycle, the follicular phase, which begins on the first day of our menstrual bleeding. As the egg matures within the ovaries, estrogen allows the endometrium tissue in the uterus to develop and thicken (creating a safe and nourishing home for a fertilized egg to grow), improves blood circulation to the genital tract, and lubricates the cervix as a way of inviting sperm.