puberty, pregnancy, birth, postnatally and the menopause (maturessence)
How our cycles are supported by the Penetrating Vessel of Chinese medicine
I want to look at how our Blood, and our Penetrating Vessel, change through our lives and the interconnectedness between the different phases of puberty, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, birth, postnatally and the menopause. Currently there is a lot of focus on the many issues which face women during menopause, but we can’t isolate the menopause from the rest of our life. How we have experienced previous changes in the flow of our Blood, and the strategies and tools we have developed over time, will influence our menopause.
My own cycles
My early periods were extremely heavy and painful and I found puberty challenging because of this. I would feel easily flustered and agitated and often blush, and had years of finding it difficult to sleep well. Once I smashed a window by mistake as I was so hot and frustrated by not being able to sleep I couldn’t work out how to open it properly!
It was partly because of my challenging periods that I found shiatsu in the first place. I found it really helped. Shiatsu supported me in my pregnancies and births and, unlike most new mothers, I actually I started sleeping better once I was pregnant and breastfeeding! My peri menopausal periods simply got lighter and easier, and I felt calmer and freer. I slept well and had only a few hot flushes, always after I ate something containing sugar. I am convinced my menopause was an easy transition was because of all the work I had to do around my periods. My main symptom was a frozen shoulder, which is not that uncommon. I realised I still had things to address.
If you haven’t read my previous blog on substack and viewed its accompanying video on the Penetrating Vessel, you might want to. These explore how the Penetrating Vessel develops from conception, its pathway and the meaning of its name.
Blood is more than blood!
Remember from the previous blog that Blood in Chinese medicine is so much more than blood in modern medicine. It is an energy of nourishing emotionally and spiritually as well as physically. Blood flows through our whole body in nourishing every aspect of our being. It is not only flowing in the blood vessels. Our Blood changes through our lives, for men as well as women. It is closely linked to our Essence (our vital force stored in our Kidneys)and is an aspect of Essence which can renewed by our contact with the outer world. Our Essence flows in cycles of 7 years for women (8 years for men) and we see the links between our cycles of Essence and changes in the flow of Blood.
Our Blood naturally changes during our lives, depending on how we nourish ourselves, and what is going on in our outer world. However, for women there are also clear inner cycles, related to our fertility. Men have cycles too, but they are not so definite because men’s fertility doesn’t stop in the way that women’s does.
Penetrating Vessel is the main Vessel which is responsible for these movements of Blood and Essence. The main way to support it is by resting and by nourishing ourselves with good food and relationships with others and the outer world. When it is weak we feel depleted. This can be physically, like with anaemia, or emotionally, when we feel unstable or find it difficult to relate to ourselves or others.
When the Penetrating Vessel is weak or unstable, it tends to rise up too much in our upper body. This may express as heat rising, hot flushes, sickness, fullness in the breasts, emotional anxiety, mood swings, restlessness and insomnia. These are all common symptoms of the different phases of Blood.
Penetrating Vessel rises because it is not being supported enough either by our Kidneys, its branch in our lower back, or by our legs. Kidneys are related to ancestral and constitutional energy and take time to build. Deep weakness in the Kidneys may take a full cycle of Essence to be replenished and ancestral trauma may resonate for the rest of our life. Lack of anchoring in our legs and our connection to the earth, may be an easier aspect to regulate. Once we start to nourish ourselves our Blood and our Penetrating Vessel can change. However, our lack of anchoring could be caused by a deeper pattern of not feeling safe on the earth. If this is linked to difficulties in our early relationship with our mother, our first earth, or because the place we were born, was unsafe (for e.g. a war zone) then this will be harder to change.
Our greatest need for Blood and nourishment – the first 14 or so years of our life
In this period of physical growth the quality of nourishment (Blood)) that we receive will impact us for the rest of our lives. We are literally laying down our physical and emotional foundations. Our Essence and Blood nourish our bone and bone marrow. Like a seed, if we receive the right amount of food, water, love and care, then we will grow into a strong, healthy plant. If we don’t then, although we have some capacity to make up for these lacks, it is much harder and takes longer to become stronger.
I talk about the first 14 years, because the Chinese said that Essence flows in 7 year cycles for girls. They didn’t distinguish a phase of puberty, but felt that around 14 the girl was now adult. She may even be married, possibly even have children, although they didn’t necessarily feel that this was the best time to conceive, because they recognised that the body is still growing.
“When a girl is 14 Tian Gui arrives, the Ren Mai (Conception Vessel) is open, the Chong Mai (Penetrating Vessel) is flourishing, menstruation begins, and she can conceive”.
Puberty and the beginning of the flow of menstrual Blood – Heavenly Essence
Somewhere towards the end of our second cycle (age 14), girls’ bodies start to change, and it takes at least another cycle (age 21) for these changes to become more settled, perhaps even 2 more (age 28). This is a process of change in the flow and function of our Blood and Essence. They now need to be able not only to support us, but the conception of a new being, as they start to mature eggs ready for ovulation. We are transitioning from the relative innocence of a child into the new identity of our adult self.
The first obvious sign of puberty is breast development. Breasts enlarge and nipples and glands develop. These show the changes in the Penetrating Vessel. Pubic and armpit hair grows, and external genitals enlarge – also areas of the Penetrating Vessel. Boys bodies also change in these areas showing that there are changes happening for them too. Their cycle is different because their sperm will mature until they die, although the quality of their sperm declines as they age.
It is not until about 2 years after breast changes and 6 months after the first vaginal discharge, around age 12, that girls start to menstruate. These first periods are irregular and tend to be shorter. The follicles (sacs containing the immature eggs) only secrete oestrogen, so no eggs are matured. Eventually the follicles will secrete progesterone, a more calming hormone, which prepares the body for the eventual implantation of a fertilised egg. It usually takes one to two of years to establish a menstrual cycle with ovulation and around 5 to 7 years for a more regular pattern.
We now know that when a girl starts to menstruate it because changes in her brain, nervous system and hormones have begun sending different signals to her body. The ancient Chinese didn’t know about the hormonal mechanisms, but the Brain, Heart, Reproductive organs and Kidneys are key organs for the Penetrating Vessel. They include our adrenal glands as part of our Kidneys, and we know that these glands play an important role in our hormonal system. The puberty hormones luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) are released in the blood to act on our ovaries.
While the body is getting used to this change in flow, the Penetrating Vessel can become unsettled. It then rises up too much in the chest. This unsettles the heart and causes symptoms like blushing and potentially anxiety, sleeplessness. It’s very important during our puberty years to eat well and feel safe and loved – to nourish our Penetrating Vessel. These days, that is often not the case. Our adolescents live in an unsettled society, often not receiving appropriate nourishment and support. Puberty offers a chance to reset our Brain, and can help us heal from childhood trauma, but it can be a time when more trauma can be created. This may show up in later phases.
With my changing body, I can shift ancestral patterns and inhabit my being more fully
Can I stand in my power and find my way even if others around me do not support me?
Establishing the pattern of the menstrual cycle
In TCM (Traditional Chinese medicine) menstrual blood is seen as a little different from the rest of blood because it is more closely linked with our Essence and so it is called “Heavenly Essence”. This “new” Blood is regulated by the Penetrating Vessel which becomes stronger and begins the movement it will have until the menopause, apart from when a woman is pregnant. Each month, Blood builds in the Penetrating Vessel as the womb lining builds. Blood and Essence are also used to mature the egg. For boys Blood and Essence are used to mature the sperm.
If the egg doesn’t implant then the lining of the womb starts to contract, along with Penetrating Vessel, and eventually will be released during menstruation. This involves hormonal changes and changes in the flow of the Penetrating Vessel as some Essence and “Heavenly Blood “leaves our body, supported by the Girdle Vessel. The most similar movement for boys is ejaculation – which is why the ancient Chinese laid guidelines for the frequency of ejaculations, based on age and health, because excessive ejaculation may weaken Blood and Essence.
After blood loss ends, the Penetrating Vessel is at its weakest. Each month it builds again, reaching its peak flow a week to 10 days after ovulation when the corpus luteum (follicle which released the egg) reaches its peak size. Penetrating Vessel is preparing the nest for a potential fertilised egg.
Contraception changes this cycle. We can say that it depletes or suppresses the flow of Blood. I wonder if use of hormonal contraception has a role to play in polycystic ovaries or endometriosis as it confuses the natural flow. It would be interesting to hear if anyone else has felt this link.
Modern medicine has relatively recently called the menstrual cycle the fifth vital sign. It always was so within TCM. How quickly and how much the Penetrating Vessel builds up reveals the strength of the woman’s Essence and her Blood. It changes each month, depending on how we have nourished ourselves, if we have managed the right balance between rest and activity, how much our outer world supports or drains us.
Pregnancy: our Blood needs to build so it can nourish a baby
The next change of “Heavenly Blood” and therefore the Penetrating Vessel, is when a woman becomes pregnant. Menstruation, and therefore ovulation and the whole process of maturing an egg for ovulation is paused. The Blood and Essence which was used for this is able to be redirected towards nourishing the developing baby and their support systems, the most important of which, from a Blood point of view, is the placenta. This involves a change in flow in the Penetrating Vessel which takes time for the body to integrate.
The first trimester is the time of shifting
This process of redirection takes time for the body to integrate. If the Penetrating Vessel is strong, then we may be able to do this easily. If it is weak then we get the typical symptoms of rising Penetrating Vessel in the chest – feelings of nausea, heat rising, emotional instability, anxiety, sleeplessness, or fullness in the abdomen and breasts. These tend to subside once the Penetrating Vessel can be more anchored in the womb through the placenta, which assumes its role of regulating much of this extra Blood by the end of the first trimester.
I find working the Penetrating Vessel in the first trimester enables women to connect with these changes and to feel deeply the need to slow down and rest.
If our leg branches are weak we can support our Penetrating Vessel through resting, changing what we eat, and, perhaps, eating smaller amounts. If our Kidneys are weak then sometimes the sickness may last till the end of pregnancy (hyperemesis) or the woman may feel tired and emotionally weak through her pregnancy.
Once the placenta becomes established, by the end of the first trimester, hormonal levels settle, the baby rapidly grows, blood volume starts to increase, the Penetrating Vessel becomes more stable. It has more of an anchor.
Second and third trimesters – Penetrating Vessel increases its strength along with a rise in physical blood volume
During the second trimester women tend to have the most energy in pregnancy and Penetrating Vessel is strong. The main issues are that the growing baby may tend to block the flow of the Penetrating Vessel. This is when the patterns may be more circulation issues, heavy or restless legs, , puffy wrists and ankles tension in the chest area, difficulty digesting, heart burn, varicose veins. It is important to support the flow of the Vessel through appropriate movements and postural awareness.
As the baby grows more, the mother needs to give more nourishment and so if her Penetrating Vessel is weak she may feel tired and even get anaemic.
From a modern scientific perspective changes in blood volume for the mother are negligible in the first trimester but by the end of pregnancy blood has increased its volume by 30-40% more than before pregnancy. During the first trimester the baby is tiny, and doesn’t need much physical blood, so the mother’s blood volume doesn’t change much. However as the baby grows and the placenta becomes established her baby needs more and more physical blood.. Most of the increased blood volume is circulating in the womb, the placenta and the baby. The Penetrating Vessel is at the strongest it will ever be in a woman’s life. Indeed, it was by working with pregnant clients that I discovered its existence.
I create a safe space in which to nurture/mature my creation.
Am I able to allow my energies to move inwards and slow down?
Birth and the postnatal period: a huge transformation and a need to rebuild the Blood and the Penetrating Vessel
Menstruation has partly prepared us for birth, but we open up much more intensely. We also lose a lot more blood. Most of the blood we lose is the blood which was circulating in our placenta and in our baby. This means our Penetrating Vessel is suddenly not only very empty, but it also is opened up. A mother’s instinctive response is to hold and touch her baby against her chest and re-establish the intimate connection she had in pregnancy. This not only helps our baby make its transition from life in the womb to life on earth, but also helps the mother to bring back her Penetrating Vessel and other energies in from space. Our baby nourishes us.
If the mother is separated from her baby for some reason, either because she or her baby need medical attention, then her Penetrating Vessel can feel quite raw and open. The Chinese talk about it becoming lost in space. The Heart which was connected so closely to the womb and the baby loses its home.. The mother is “beside herself” literally out of her body. The extreme version of this is postnatal psychosis.
Even if a mother is holding and feeding her baby, she needs nourishment, emotional and physical, to rebuild her Blood so she can recover and also have energy to feed her baby.
How we rebuild our energy in the postnatal period sets the scene for the rest of our life
For the Chinese the postnatal period is vital for the future health of the mother because if the Blood does not build up then this creates a pattern of weakens which can last for the rest of her life. Like most ancient cultures, there would be a time of recovery for at least 9 months, to rebuild the Blood we gave during the 9 months of pregnancy. During the first month or even two the mother would rest completely and not have to do anything other than focus on her baby and herself to rebuild her Blood. She needs to take plenty of time to rest and recover. These days, many women are not able to have this kind of support. In fact, because women tend to be older, and are likely to have worked right up to before birth and have had some kind of intervention, they need more time to rest, not less. I feel this lack of focus on the postnatal time, is showing up a lot in the perimenopause. Even for women who haven’t had children, our culture does not sufficiently value how much we need to rest and nourish ourselves.
I embrace a new relationship to my baby/project.
I can come back to myself after opening up and letting go.
I nurture myself to rebuild my energies
I grieve for the loss of the connection I had with my baby/project
I am able not to lose myself in another or in space.
Maturessence: Menopause -our Blood turns in to nourish us – we are the baby.
Half way through our life, our Essence is declining, and we need our Blood and Essence for ourselves. It flows back to nourish us, like it did before puberty. In a way we could say that we become the baby. It’s interesting that many of the menopausal symptoms, like hot flushes, emotional turmoil, sleeplessness are like the symptoms of the first trimester. If we can learn to nourish ourselves we can live well for the rest of our life. ancient Chinese say the natural cycle of life as 100 years and so we are only half way through. We need to learn how to use our energy wisely.
I find it fascinating, that even though hormones are only one aspect of all the changes, that they more or less drop back to pre-puberty levels. This is perhaps why the ancient Chinese called it our second spring
I find new expressions for my creative energy, respecting that my physical strength is waning, but my capacity to direct my energy is growing.
I rediscover the playfulness and flexibility of the child, with my newfound wisdom
Can I let go of limiting patterns which keep me held in the past, depleting my energy?
Am I able to let go of my youth and embrace my ageing gracefully?
I hope you enjoyed my reflections and I look forward to your experiences of your blood cycles and any questions you may have.