Menstruation and the Moon
It has long been recognized by cultures all over the world, even including biomedicine, that women’s menstrual cycle is (or should be, in a healthy body) tied to the waxing and waning of the moon. It is also a widely accepted fact that women who live together, whether as mothers and daughters or extended families or even in modern house-sharing situations, will end up adjusting their cycles in such a way that they menstruate and ovulate at the same time, at least as long as they are healthy and balanced enough to have a regular and bountiful monthly flow. As a medical anthropologist, it has always surprised me how little serious academic research has been done on what I consider an extremely important medical question: What do or did women’s natural menstrual cycles look like, in an ideal world free of interference from electric lights, hormonal birth control, and the million other factors that might disrupt the connection of our female bodies to the moon? Do and did women naturally menstruate with the full moon or the new moon? And how might this information be relevant to contemporary clinical practice?
I have yet to find a clear answer in a solid academic resource. I have asked countless women during the seminars I teach on Chinese gynecology and have gotten countless responses arguing strongly for flowing with the full moon and for flowing with the new moon. According to an online article on the “Wisdom of the Menstrual Cycle” by the popular author Christiane Northrup, M.D., it is more natural for women to ovulate with the full moon and menstruate in the darkness of the new moon:
Even in modern society, where we are cut off from the rhythms of nature, the cycle of ovulation is influenced by the moon. Studies have shown that peak rates of conception and probably ovulation appear to occur at the full moon or the day before.
During the new moon, ovulation and conception rates are decreased overall, and an increased number of women start their menstrual bleeding. Scientific research has documented that the moon rules the flow of fluids (ocean tides as well as individual body fluids) and affects the unconscious mind and dreams.1
The endnote cited in the quote refers readers to two articles on the relationship between dreaming and the menstrual cycle, and thus supports only the last sentence of the quotation above, but does not support her argument that ovulation is linked to the full moon. As the headline of her last section (“Luteal Phase: Seeing in the Dark”) suggests, she connects the luteal phase, or in other words the phase between ovulation and menstruation, with greater access to “unconscious ‘lunar’ information,” with the time when women are “most in tune with their inner knowing and with what isn’t working in their lives,” with dreaming, emotions, and intuition. Unfortunately without citing her sources, she suggests that this powerful creative period of inner darkness, of looking within, when the veil between the seen and unseen worlds becomes thin, is likely to coincide with the waning moon and thus to peak with the release of the menstrual flow during the new moon.
I greatly appreciate the general message of Northrup’s post that we women need to respect and honor the menstrual cycle as a precious gift that helps us make sense of the world, with different strengths and weaknesses during different times of the cycle, which we can relate directly to our reproductive processes in the womb, whether we are pregnant or not. When we as women start seeing pregnancy, fertility, and creativity as interconnected expressions of the same inner potency of the female body, this can completely change our perspective on fertility, on menopause, on premenstrual cramps and mood swings, on the cyclical nature of the gifts from our dreams, and even on our tolerance for other people’s BS.
My only criticism with her post is that it does not actually provide any solid support for her assertion that menstruation “should” fall on the new moon and ovulation on the full moon. From my own cursory cross-cultural research over many years, it appears that that is true in some cultures but not in others. My own audiences, many of whom consist of Chinese medicine practitioners specializing in gynecology with many years of questioning their female patients on their menstrual cycles, seem to disagree with each other in this regard, and I have yet to find any conclusive evidence for one or the other. Perhaps there is no consensus and some of us flow in darkness while others flow under the bright light of the full moon?
My own sense is that, as a culture, most of us are too far removed from the powers of the moon, too out of touch with the cycles of the heavens, to be able to provide the kind of serious objective research data that I am looking for. How many of us consciously engage in moon bathing, in exposing our naked bodies to the waxing and waning moon, to the brightness of the full moon but also to the unmitigated darkness of the new moon, on a daily basis for hours at a time, for example, to allow the influences of the moon to affect our wombs and menstrual cycles? Just the presence of a roof over our heads and artificial lighting can lead our bodies astray and affect our cycle, which is why Northrup suggests that we can use nightlights during ovulation to increase fertility and regulate the cycle.
So yes, it is obvious that the moon affects our menstrual cycles, our dreams and emotions and modes of perception, our relationship to our inner and outer worlds. But how exactly this happens is surprisingly far from obvious and raises far more questions than it answers. And this takes me to the innocent little phrase that started this whole piece: 月後 “after the moon,” and 月前 “before the moon.” Here is the passage in the context of Question Six of the Hundred Questions of Gynecology (女科百問), a thirteenth century text on gynecology that I am currently working on.
What is the Reason for Menstrual Periods Being Either Early or Late, or of Variable Quantity?
Answer: When women become ill, they primarily suffer from menstrual periods that are either profuse or scant, or early or late, and accompanied by occasional pain. Doctors call all of these conditions menstrual disease and not once explain whether it is a case of Yīn prevailing over Yáng or of Yáng prevailing over Yīn. For this reason they are rarely able to be effective when they administer medicinals.
If it is a case of Yīn Qì being exuberant and overwhelming Yáng, the result is that the uterus is cold, the Qì becomes cool, and the blood does not move. This is what the Classics refer to as “winter-cold in heaven and freezing on earth.” As water congeals, it becomes ice, and this situation therefore causes menstruation to be scant and to occur after the moon.
If it is a case of Yáng Qì being exuberant and overwhelming Yīn, the blood scatters and spills over. The classics refer to this as “summer-heat in heaven and heat on earth.” The menstrual fluids boil and overflow, and this situation therefore causes menstruation to be profuse and to occur before the moon.
Harmonize the woman’s Yīn and Yáng and attune her Qì and blood, so as to achieve the blessing of balance!
Are we to read “before the moon” and “after the moon” literally, in which case this passage would suggest that the ancient Chinese associated women’s menstrual flow with the full moon? Or does “moon” here merely refer to the normal and healthy arrival of the menstrual period in relation to the moon, regardless of whether it is with the full or new moon? This is a question that has bothered me forever and which I may never receive a satisfactory answer for. I know that the ebb and flow of the tides in the sea will eventually gift me a piece to this puzzle but I am still too new to island life to understand their message and how it relates to fluid physiology in all human but specifically in female bodies. So many questions, so few answers! I invite you to comment to your heart’s content….