By Saraswati Markus, DAOM, LAc
Youth is like spring, an over praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.
Chinese medicine teaches that, as women age, their energies move from the youthful, flowering fire of the lower burner, the womb, where babies can be held, into the Heart, where the fruits of all of life’s unfolding can be held. This introduces in broad brushstrokes the Three Treasures of Jing-Qi-Shen, or Essence-Energy-Spirit, also known as the Kidney-Heart Axis, depicted below.
The Three Treasures provides a basis for understanding menopausal transition and offers hope for alchemical rejuvenation and organ system rebalancing in later reproductive years. Those years may be biological, in the case of premature, accelerated aging, or chronological, that numbering we keep from birth to death. If you’re reading this, you may be maintaining your own tense count through your late 30s, or even more tentatively into your 40s, a time when doctors say we shouldn’t have babies.
Though Western medicine has good reason to suggest that older mothers-to-be enter into childbearing with caution, women have been having healthy babies into their 40s from the beginning of time. What’s different today is that many women are choosing not to have their first child until their 40s, at a time in life when the reproductive energy has already moved away from its firm root in the pelvis and has begun its ascendance into the chest. Add to those cooling fecund energies the accumulated effects of habituated reactivity, poor diets, unmanaged stressors, traumatic losses, heartbreak, the insults of bacteria, viruses, and chemical toxins—and the later phase of fertility doesn’t seem so abundant or safe anymore.
In my fertility practice, I now see women in their 20s and early 30s with advanced maternal aging and the associated issues of poor ovarian reserve: high FSH and low AMH. Contributing to causative internal imbalances are outer life imbalances: in large part, these women are subjecting themselves to the demands of competitive careers, long work hours, and taxing responsibilities at work and at home. They’re keeping up with social networks, global business, working any and all hours of the day, perpetuating the madness and revving up the intensity because we’re taught that our accomplishments are a badge of honor. The uniquely female skill of multi-tasking has backfired: our bodies are moving through time too fast… and that comes at a cost.
LONGEVITY: The New Math
Though we may not have thought of it in these terms, every task accomplished expends precious energy. If what’s expended exceeds what’s reserved or replenished, there is a deficit, and the body, mind, and spirit suffer accordingly.
I am reminded of the foundational Chinese medicine principle that life is yang: warm, active, and alive, while death is cold and yin. Remember the beautiful bold red-and-blue graphic of the Heart-Kidney axis? If yang belongs to birth and yin belongs to death, we can support movement toward birth (longevity) with what are known as yang sheng fa. Literally translated from the Chinese as nourishing life practices, these ground yang energies down into the lower burner, which solidifies the qi and returns life and higher function to the reproductive organs.
I’ve been so taken with the promise and demonstrated results of Nourishing Life practices that they’ve become my namesake.
Here are some practical ways to begin reawakening, treasuring, and cultivating yang energies in your life:
- Understand the rhythms of nature, the position of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and learn how to become nourished by the cosmic energies
- Avoid unnecessary use of cold herbs, cold foods, cold medications, and cold air and water
- Control stress, emotions, and pressures
- Refrain from hyper-stimulating yang, either physically or emotionally (moderation is good)
Open the lock
Let the moon in–
The Floating Temple.
The Three Treasures: An Alchemical Goldmine for Living Well
The Tao suggests that we are born with all our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual predispositions—a full store of Kidney essence (jing). At the level of energy (qi) we can treasure our yang by following the guidelines above and meeting our tendencies with awareness and choice toward healthy outcomes. A lifetime of meeting life’s challenges consciously creates wisdom and clarity, which bubble up into the Heart toward the autumn of our lives (shen). The precious shen is where the seen meets the unseen, where base physical essence has transmuted into refined spirit, a place where women spend the last significant half of their lives, the lower burner having cooled. What will we birth with all of that life experience, all of that energy in the Heart?
Menopausal Transition Doesn’t Have to Be an Endless Cycle of Suffering
Twenty-five hundred years of Chinese medical literature corroborates Western medical findings about what we’ll call the second reproductive phase. The early phase of fertility occurs from around age 14, when the jing is robust. Cycling through women in seven-year increments, physical and reproductive vigor peaks at around age 28. The second cycle then begins around age 33 until the ripe age of 49, just before textbook menopause, which marks the end of the reproductive years.
Whether or not you’re preparing for pregnancy in late fertility, the tools of Chinese medicine will smooth your transition to a post-reproductive life and spare you some of the symptoms from which most women unnecessarily suffer. It’s the abrupt shift from lower to upper burner that creates those hallmark experiences of menopausal transition: the hot flashes, groggy feeling, weight gain, low sex drive, insomnia, depression, and stress.
I’ve developed nine steps to add grace and ease to this process. Each definitely requires your commitment to self-care, and they may require some explanation, but please do what you can. I’ll offer more on each of the nine steps in upcoming newsletters and workshops.
Nourishing Life’s Nine Steps to Healing Infertility and Hormonal Balance
- Cultivate fertile ground. Reduce toxic load and detoxify the body.
- Bring in fresh ingredients: Eat well, often, fresh. Breathe.
- Nourish, harmonize, and let it flow. Open your body’s energetic channels with acupuncture, meridian flow, acupressure and yoga.
- Prioritize ease of mind. Settle and learn to focus. Do one thing at a time (OTAT).
- Practice active relaxation.
- Pivot from negative mental states; actively cultivate feelings of well-being.
- Fertilize your spirit. Connect consciously with each moment.
- Let go of the work of conceiving; become an empty, receptive vessel.
- Harmonize yourself with the wisdom and rhythms of nature and return to your naturally fertile state.
Here I’ve focused on the autumn of life, the specific obstacles to vitality we modern women face, having been taxed by the insults of our environments and our own compromising habituation. I’ve touched on the Three Treasures of Jing-Qi-Shen, and the beautiful hope of revitalizing what’s been lost with yang sheng practices, freely offering you some of my favorites. It is my hope and intention that you’ve found something rich and worthwhile in these pages.
Saraswati Markus is the founder of Nourishing Life Center of Health, an institute for women’s health and regenerative and restorative medicine. She lectures at medical colleges and specialty conferences around the world. She received both her master’s and doctoral degrees in acupuncture and Oriental medicine from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, CA. Between 2005-2009, she completed advanced training in acupuncture, herbal medicine, and classical medical literature at Shandong University and Hospital in China. Saraswati is in her 22nd year of teaching medicine and currently holds faculty positions in both master’s and doctoral degree programs. She lives in her Asheville, North Carolina, and leads trainings and immersion programs for women, patients, and practitioners in the U.S. and abroad.