What You Need to Know About Seed Cycling for Hormone Balance
What is seed cycling?
Few people who have menstrual cycles are completely free of any symptoms or problems. Most deal with issues ranging from the irritability, bloating, and breast pain of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) to cramps, missed periods, no periods (amenorrhea), or too-frequent periods.
Hormone-related woes don’t stop there. At midlife, many people experience hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats, and other issues related to the menopausal transition.
“Seed cycling” is the latest trend in the search for relief. The concept is simple: a person eats specific quantities and types of seeds—think pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, and chia seeds—at different points throughout the menstrual cycle.
“The claim is that this strategy will balance hormonal changes that mark different stages of menstruation and ultimately curb related symptoms, such as bloating or fatigue,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Katie Wehri Takayasu, MD, who practices complementary medicine at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, says she likes seed cycling “for anyone who wants to be more in line with their menstrual health or hormonal health, especially if you’re suffering from PMS symptoms, painful periods, irregular periods or if you’re wanting to get pregnant.”
The menstrual cycle, explained
A person’s monthly menstrual cycle is guided by a delicate interplay of hormones. The cycle “officially” begins on the first day of your period and, for most people, lasts somewhere between 25 and 36 days.
The period part of the menstrual cycle usually lasts between four and eight days. After bleeding ends, hormones work together to release an egg from the ovaries (what’s known as ovulation). If there’s no conception, the uterus sheds its lining, and then it starts all over again.
Although multiple hormones are involved, the short version is that estrogen levels rise from the first day of the cycle through ovulation (roughly halfway through the entire cycle).
After that, progesterone levels go up while estrogen winds down. If you’re not pregnant, levels of both hormones drop in preparation for the cycle to start again. This is when things can go awry. The quick change in hormone levels can lead to pain, discomfort, and more.
How does seed cycling work?
According to Dr. Takayasu, seed cycling supports the regular rise and fall of estrogen and progesterone during different parts of the menstrual cycle.
The seeds, she says, aren’t meant to change your hormone levels but are “designed to support your body’s natural rhythms.”
For the first half of the cycle (the beginning of your period to ovulation), the seed cycling regimen calls for one tablespoon of ground organic raw pumpkin seeds and one tablespoon of ground organic raw flaxseeds.
For the next half of the cycle, it’s one tablespoon of ground organic raw sunflower seeds and one tablespoon of ground organic raw sesame seeds.
You can also get the seeds in butter form, like tahini (sesame seed butter) and sunflower butter, says Dr. Takayasu, who is also an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University/New York-Presbyterian.
Seeds, lignans, and hormones
The theory behind seed cycling is that the lignans in seeds can stimulate estrogen, says Linsenmeyer, who is also an assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Lignans are phytochemicals found in fiber-rich food like seeds, whole grains, beans, and nuts. They’re also precursors to phytoestrogen, plant compounds that act like estrogen.
According to a review article published in 2019 in Molecules, preliminary research has linked consuming lignans with a lower risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast cancer, as well as fewer menopausal symptoms. This leads scientists to speculate that lignans may help prevent certain chronic diseases.
The jury is still out on the health benefits of the compounds, though. Animal and lab studies have also suggested that phytoestrogens might actually increase the risk of infertility and some cancers because they interfere with the normal workings of hormones, according to a 2016 study in the British Journal of Pharmacology.
(Beware of these hormone imbalance symptoms.)
What’s the scientific evidence for seed cycling?
Extremely limited research has looked at the effect of seeds or lignans on the menstrual cycle and most of what we do have is preliminary and/or dated. In a 2017 study in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion, researchers gave women ground flaxseed, evening primrose oil, or vitamin E for two menstrual cycles.
Only the flaxseed seemed to reduce the duration of period-related breast pain. The duration of breast pain was about 8.3 days at the start of the study, 8.5 days one month after taking flaxseed, and 7.2 days after two months.
Finally, researchers publishing in Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research reported the case of one woman with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) who saw lowered levels of testosterone and hirsutism (excess hair growth) after taking flaxseed.
Why does this matter? People with PCOS tend to have higher levels of male hormones like testosterone. Still, it’s important to note that this study is older, dating from 2007.
With all that in mind, Linsenmeyer isn’t sold on seed cycling’s benefits.
“There is no evidence that seed cycling can significantly impact hormone levels in menstruating women,” she says. Sure, seed cycling may impact hormone levels, but as far as science is concerned, it’s a big unknown.
The bottom line
Although seed cycling may not have any proven benefits on menstrual health, there’s no question that seeds themselves are good for you.
“Seeds of all varieties are highly nutritious; they are rich in healthy fats, fiber, protein, and a host of micronutrients,” says Linsenmeyer. “At the end of the day, incorporating a variety of seeds into your diet is a safe and sensible goal. But, the claim that seed cycling can impact hormonal levels and mitigate unwanted symptoms is unfounded.”
And be skeptical of companies peddling seed therapies. You can get the same products in the bakery aisle of your grocery store for a fraction of the price, Linsenmeyer says.
“Obviously, if you have an allergy to any of these seeds, don’t try this protocol,” says Dr. Takayasu.
And if you haven’t been following a primarily plant-heavy diet but want to, ease into it. “Any sharp changes to the body, in general, are hard to the body,” she says.
Next, here are the best exercises for period pain.
- Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri
- Katherine Wehri Takayasu, MD, complementary medicine practitioner at Stamford Hospital Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness in Connecticut and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University/New York-Presbyterian
- Stamford Health: "Seed Cycling for Hormonal Imbalance"
- Molecules: "Naturally Lignan-Rich Foods: A Dietary Tool for Health Promotion?"
- British Journal of Pharmacology: "The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens"
- Journal of Education and Health Promotion: "Compare the effect of flaxseed, evening primrose oil and Vitamin E on duration of periodic breast pain"
- Current Topics in Neutraceutical Research: "The Effect of Flaxseed Supplementation on Hormonal Levels Associated with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome: A Case Study"