Sometimes heavy bleeding can be a sign of something more serious. Endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or ovarian cysts cause many women severe pain and have resulted in many an untimely hysterectomy. We've learned that during the first phase of our menstrual cycles, the presence of estrogen allows the tissue within the uterine walls to thicken prior to our monthly bleeding. When a woman has endometriosis, bits and pieces of this uterine lining break off and instead of moving down and out of the body, move upward and lodge in other areas of the body. According to Dr. Northrup, the most common places for this tissue to attach itself is on the pelvic organs, the pelvic side walls, and sometimes on the bowel. When we begin to bleed, these bits of tissue, stimulated by our hormones, appear to bleed as well, and that's what most physicians believe produces such severe cramping.
No one really knows what causes endometriosis, but Ayurvedic physicians believe it stems from a disruption of our doshas (the three vital energies or biological forces that control all physiological and psychological processes in the body and mind) and the presence of ama, the sticky, icky "stuff" that accumulates in our bodies when something is amiss. You can see it as the white film on your tongue after a night of eating rich, heavy foods, or when you are sick.
When everything is working optimally, a woman's menstrual cycle flows trouble free. As the blood moves out of the body, it gathers all the ama and other toxins that have accumulated during the month and removes them. This process is governed by the vata (wind) dosha, and more specifically its subdosha, apana vata. Apana vata pushes the waste downward through the intestines, the urinary tract, and the uterus. If it gets stuck, apana vata can't do its job efficiently, and everything begins to move upward. Menstrual blood and uterine tissue are then likely to find their way into the fallopian tubes where the tissue takes root. Ayurvedic physicians recommend changes in diet and lifestyle, including lots of rest during the first day or so of your period, and gentle yoga asanas to relieve cramps, reduce stress, and deliver fresh blood to the pelvic region.
A number of physicians and healers agree with Dr. Northrup, who feels that endometriosis can be a wake-up call for women who compete in high-stress jobs. She says it is often the way a woman's body demonstrates that her "innermost emotional needs are in direct conflict with what the world is demanding of her." In other words, women who consistently and relentlessly focus their energies outward and neglect their emotional and spiritual sides are prime candidates for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)—and the accompanying heavy bleeding.
Menstrual cramps—the bane of many a woman's monthly cycle—come in many different types. Sarah, a 19-year-old art student, gets sharp, colicky cramps. Complete with constipation and periodic bouts of diarrhea, they bring her to a fetal position for the first 24 hours of her period. Jen, a 32-year-old new mom who has thankfully outgrown her cramps, suffered from sharp, painful cramps as well, but hers came with vomiting and an elevated fever. Linda, a 37-year-old dance teacher, feels a dull ache in her back and inner thighs. To add insult to injury, her muscles and joints feel stiff, and her breasts are painful and swollen.