Ice and Menstruation

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Written by: Eric Brand
Published on July 23rd, 2009

By Eric Brand

An anthropologist could spend years studying the cultural perceptions around ice. Ice poses an interesting question for TCM, because the widespread consumption of ice is a relatively new phenomenon. The modern icemaker and freezer are inventions that were never mentioned in classical Chinese medical literature, so the conclusions about ice on a massive scale are pretty much being formed by only the current generation of practitioners.

In China, Hong Kong, and especially Taiwan, there is a widespread popular conception that drinking iced drinks exacerbates menstrual pain. This belief is common among TCM doctors as well as the general population. By contrast, Westerners never think about the effect of ice and iced drinks on menstruation, and we consume ice in voracious quantities.

A few years back, I remember covering a class at Chang Gung University in Taiwan. The class was full of science nerds from the Western medical track, and at the end of class, a girl shyly raised her hand and asked me: “We’ve heard that Western girls can drink iced drinks during their period. Is that true?” When I responded that Western girls never think about the effect of iced drinks on menstruation, the entire class of 50 students exhibited nothing but stunned amazement. They wanted to know why, how, what was different about our constitutions, etc. The belief is that pervasive.

I even recall my teacher Feng Ye asking me about it, speculating about how it could be possible that something that was “so obvious” could be missed by an entire culture of women. The theory is that drinking iced drinks during menstruation is similar to the “brain freeze” headache one gets when drinking a frozen beverage too quickly, when all the blood in your head rushes to your mouth. In this case, the blood is moving from the chong/ren channels to the stomach to warm the cold drink. Cold by nature causes contraction and congealing, and this situation worsens menstrual pain.

So we have an interesting situation: Millions of doctors and laypeople think ice worsens menstrual pain. Millions of doctors and laypeople in a different part of the world never even worry about it. Someone in Taiwan drinks ice and has pain, they blame it on the ice. They don’t drink ice and still have pain, and the response is “good thing I didn’t drink ice, imagine how bad it would be.” If they don’t drink ice and don’t have pain, it’s because they didn’t drink ice. If they drink ice but don’t have pain, they just think their constitution is getting better. Any way you look at it, you can’t rule out the fact that it could all be one self-fulling prophecy or placebo effect. From youth, the girls think they will have pain from ice, so they drink ice and expect pain. They get the pain and it confirms their suspicions.

We can only draw a few logical conclusions. For example:

1) Ice doesn’t really affect menstrual pain unless you have the cultural expectation that it will
2) Ice does affect menstrual pain but Westerners don’t think to connect the two
3) Westerners are more hot in terms of their constitution, so they don’t have any problem with ice

So what’s the deal? Old wives’ tale or key clinical issue? It should be easy to do a clinical trial, as we have millions of people that menstruate and have heavy ice or no ice habits. It is an extremely pervasive cultural belief that there is either no connection (as in the West) or a close connection between ice and menstrual pain (as in the East). Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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Comment from Leslie

Interesting article – something to think about over an iced diet coke….(both which are bad for your health.)

PG

Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.