Pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, and the almighty flaxseed may have hormone-balancing benefits—but there's a catch.

By By Kelsey Ogletree
Updated: March 25, 2019
Photo: Food Period

The concept of seed cycling (or seed syncing) has generated a lot of buzz lately, as it's being touted as a way to manage symptoms of PMS and naturally regulate hormones.

It's an interesting public conversation given the fact that, as recently as a few years ago, just saying the word "period" in public was pretty taboo, save for articles in women's magazines or convos in your ob-gyn's office. Yet the times are changing-everyone is obsessed with talking about periods right now.

More and more brands are getting involved in the menstruation conversation, claiming they can help women have more regular or less painful periods. One of those is Food Period, a company that's focused on rebalancing hormones naturally-leading tobetter periods (i.e., fewer PMS symptoms caused by rage-y hormone levels)-through seed cycling. But, what exactly does that mean?

What is seed cycling?

Seed cycling is the practice of eating certain combinations of seeds-flaxseed, pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame-in specific quantities at different stages of your menstrual cycle. It requires a bit of planning, as you'll need to track your cycle to prep the seeds to eat. (Grinding raw seeds using a coffee grinder or a special seed grinder ensures you'll get the full benefits. The nutrients are within the seed and can be hard to absorb without thorough chewing, as previously reported.)

In theory, the process is pretty strict. For the first two weeks of your cycle, known as the follicular phase, you consume one tablespoon each of ground flaxseed and ground pumpkin seeds per day. For the second two weeks, or the luteal phase, you switch to one tablespoon each of ground sunflower and ground sesame seeds per day. (Related: The Healthiest Nuts and Seeds to Include In Your Diet)

It's ideal if you can grind the seeds right before consuming them, says registered dietitian nutritionist Whitney Gingerich, R.D.N., owner of Whitney Wellness LLC. However, "a lot of my clients are busy women who don't have time to grind up flax seeds every time they're ready for their smoothie," she says, "so I recommend buying them whole, grinding them up and storing them in the fridge."

In addition to smoothies, Gingerich recommends adding the ground seeds to things like salads or oatmeal, or even mixed in with a spoonful of peanut butter. Food Period provides a subscription-box model that comes with daily snacks called Moon Bites, which are cute little packages in flavors like chocolate chip and carrot ginger that contain all the ground seeds you need in each cycle-eliminating the prep work.

How does seed cycling work?

Seeds contain phytoestrogens, dietary estrogens that naturally occur in plants. In seeds, the phytoestrogens are polyphenols called lignans. When you eat plant lignans, your gut bacteria convert them to enterolignans, enterodiol, and enterolactone, which have a weak estrogenic effect, says Melinda Ring, M.D., executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. That means that like your body's own native estrogens, they can bind to estrogen receptors in organs throughout your body. Once they bind, though, they may either have an estrogen-like effect or an estrogen-blocking effect, says Dr. Ring. However, she notes, everyone has a very individualized response to phytoestrogens, and the effect is highly dependent on factors like your gut microbiome. In theory, this process helps regulate PMS symptoms by balancing estrogen and avoiding estrogen dominance (aka overly high estrogen levels), which can be a dominant factor in unpleasant, heavy periods, she adds. Yet, research doesn't really support seed cycling-at least, not yet.

What do doctors say about seed cycling?

"While I'm a huge fan of seeds, I don't think there's adequate evidence to suggest that we need to be eating different seeds throughout different periods of our cycle," says Dr. Ring.

The vast majority of studies done on seeds have been conducted on animals consuming seeds on a daily basis, not in a cyclical manner, she says. The benefits of flaxseed-the greatest dietary source of lignans-have been the most widely studied in humans (shown to help lengthen the luteal phase and possibly improve the regularity of ovulation). But research on the effects of pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds is limited.

Seeds can also affect different women in different ways, so it's hard to predict exactly what the outcome might be, adds Dr. Ring. "I don't think [seed cycling] is going to be harmful, but I have seen women take phytoestrogens and rather than regulate, [their cycles] became more irregular." (Related: 10 Causes of Irregular Periods)

Eden Fromberg, M.D., an ob-gyn at Holistic Gynecology New York, is board-certified in integrative holistic medicine. She uses seeds with her patients-but always in conjunction with other methods, such as herbs, and diet and lifestyle changes.

"I think that the theory behind cycling oversimplifies the nuances and complexities of natural cycles, cycle imbalances, and phases of menstrual and female life cycles, and extrapolates relevant science in a one-size-fits-all approach," says Dr. Fromberg.

That's not to say seeds don't have tons of other health benefits, even if science doesn't exactly support the cycling method. For example, Dr. Fromberg frequently recommends fenugreek seeds, which she says modulate testosterone and blood sugar while diminishing menstrual cramps and improving digestion.

Should you try seed cycling?

If you have the time and want to go for it, the experts agree it probably won't cause you any harm. Anecdotally, Dr. Ring hears women say they think seed cycling has made their PMS symptoms less severe. If you want to start with a basic approach, she suggests you consume about one tablespoon of ground seeds a day to support your overall hormone health. And you have to be patient; it can take a minimum of three months before seeing any type of improvement in your symptoms, according to Food Period's founders Britt Martin and Jenn Kim.

There are many other alternative natural ways to ease PMS symptoms, such as taking vitex agnus-castus (chasteberry), calcium, or B6 supplements; and trying acupuncture, reflexology, or yoga poses, says Dr. Ring. Consuming a plant-based diet-which can naturally include healthful seeds-also tends to help lessen PMS, she adds.

"I hope there will be more research on this in the future," says Gingerich, who says a lot of people have asked her about it. "I feel like people are more aware now of the effects that their food and things around them have on [their bodies], and are looking for ways to do things more naturally."

Another thing to keep in mind if you start a seed-heavy regimen: You'll need to drink more water than usual to compensate for the extra fiber, says Gingerich, or endure the consequences (painful constipation).

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