What is Seed Cycling?
I remember first hearing about seed cycling over 10 years ago as a new acupuncturist. The idea of seed cycling is that you can eat different seeds at different parts of your cycle to optimize your hormone balance. Which seed depends on the unique micronutrients in each one, with certain seeds thought to balance estrogen in the follicular phase (before ovulation) and balance progesterone levels in the luteal phase (after ovulation). The concept of being able to truly use your food as medicine and take control of your own health is really appealing of course! Who wouldn’t want a DIY answer to things like irregular cycles, painful periods, or other hormonal symptoms like premenstrual bloating and acne? Not to mention a little help with fertility?
Seed cycling seems to have surged in popularity on social media, so I wanted to take some time to really dig into the research to see if this is worth doing. Also, as a practitioner of East Asian Medicine (TCM), I am excited to discuss our medicine’s view of seeds and how they’re used, as well as some information on how our medicine would approach hormonal health at different phases of the cycle.
To summarize, I found that the research shows eating seeds definitely has the potential to help improve some people’s hormonal balance and overall health, but the practice of seed cycling is not backed by any studies- just anecdotal evidence (stories). Any studies that have found a hormonal (or other) benefit for eating seeds involved the participants eating them throughout the month, not just at certain points in the cycle. I don’t want to totally dismiss anecdotal evidence- but I think it’s possible that people who “seed cycled” saw improvements in their hormonal health because their overall intake of seeds increased.
It’s inspiring to me to see that people want to know what they can do to take charge of their health- and there truly is so much you can do! But it’s important to separate out what is helpful and really worth the effort from what is a potential drain on your energy, time or money. I hope this article makes the subject more clear, and helps you to make an informed decision on whether particular ones might be helpful as one part of your overall healthy lifestyle.
Will Eating Seeds Balance My Hormones? The biomedical details:
Ground Flax Seeds:
The evidence we have comes from a small study, but the results are quite interesting. Researchers found a reduction in anovulatory cycles as well as a longer luteal phase (time from ovulation to period) in those consuming 10g ground flax seed daily. This would be of most interest for those with irregular cycles or a short luteal phase (it should ideally be 12-14 days). Many other health benefits from flax consumption have been found including reduction in stress hormones and perception of stress (perhaps of interest to those whose cycles are really sensitive to stress or travel), improved cholesterol profile, reduced risk of heart disease and possibly cancer prevention.
Take-Home Message: Consuming 10g ground flax seeds per day (about 1-1.5 TBSP) may help with a variety of hormonal issues as well as general health, and hasn’t been found to have any negative effects, so is worth trying. The seeds should be ground and kept refrigerated. You can use either roasted or plain seeds. Unless they are roasted, they don’t have much flavor so you can sprinkle them on pretty much anything! I have ground flax every morning on my oatmeal and LOVE the roasted seeds which I then grind at home. They have a nutty, popcorn-like flavor in my opinion.
Pumpkin Seeds, Sesame Seeds and Sunflower Seeds:
For more detailed research on any hormonal effects from the remaining 3 seeds in “Seed Cycling” protocols, please visit Nicola Rinaldi’s excellent and very thoroughly researched blog post here! In summary, including sesame seeds in your diet (again, throughout the month) might be beneficial for those with PCOS and low SHBG (Sex Hormone Binding Globulin), but the other seeds (pumpkin and sunflower) haven’t been shown to have an effect on your hormones. You should totally still be eating them, as they are a really healthy food and taste delicious!
The East Asian Medicine (EAM) Point of View:
Eating what is currently in season is nothing new or surprising nowadays- it makes sense to us intuitively as well as from a sustainability standpoint. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other East Asian Medical (EAM) traditions, practitioners routinely recommend foods to patients based on the season, the person’s constitution (hot? cold? damp? dry?), and for the different parts of your menstrual cycle. The reasoning behind this is that foods each have unique qualities or “energetics”- whether it be bitter foods (mustard greens, radishes) which are good for revving up a sluggish digestive tract or warming foods/spices (cinnamon, ginger) which nourish and soothe a cold, tired body in the winter.
So, in some ways you can see where seed cycling has potential relevance to TCM. Both share the idea that the foods we consume should be adjusted based on our health status, and have potential to optimize our health.
However I think the difference comes in here: seed cycling proponents attempt to back up the practice using scientific and medical terminology, but unfortunately the evidence just isn’t there. When talking about TCM/EAM dietary recommendations based on seasons or parts of the menstrual cycle, practitioners base this theory on the same principles as the rest of our ancient medicine- therefore it’s highly individualized and never a one-size-fits-all prescription.
What are the health benefits of eating seeds from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) point of view?
While the exact properties vary depending on the type of seed and its preparation (roasted or raw), overall, seeds tend to nourish the fluids and moisten the body. Seeds help with lubricating the intestines since they are rich in oils. So it follows that people who suffer from symptoms of “dryness” such as constipation, certain types of sleep problems, dry skin, hair and nails or light or irregular periods would benefit from having more seeds in their diets. Some seeds such as black sesame are used medicinally to nourish blood and therefore are good for some cases of light or irregular/absent periods and postpartum recovery and are used for anti-aging as well.
What might “food cycling” look like in TCM?
In TCM/EAM, there are different properties associated with each phase of the menstrual cycle (one menstrual cycle is from the first day of your period until the last day before the next bleed begins).
It’s very difficult to summarize TCM/EAM dietary and lifestyle recommendations for each phase of the cycle, because they really are individualized! For example, if I have one patient who is always tired and cold and has a short luteal phase (the time between ovulation and the start of their period), I will prescribe herbs and recommend they eat foods to warm their body to help with circulation during this time. However the same warming herbs and foods could be awful for someone with signs of heat (ie they feel hot, have acne and tend toward agitation) and a healthy luteal phase length.
From the above example, you can understand why giving seasonal or cycle-dependent treatments and dietary recommendations is a practice we use all the time in TCM, but there’s really no safe or responsible way for me to lay out a plan that would work well for “the general population”.
In my practice, I tend to give acupuncture and herbal prescriptions as well as diet and lifestyle recommendations based off of TCM and EAM theory. However in addition, I’ll sometimes recommend the person get additional testing or incorporate foods and supplements but only when there is a solid backing of scientific evidence. This is exactly the type of integrative care I expect to receive, and is what I strive to provide for my patients.
In closing, there’s not really any downside to seed cycling, other than the potential stress involved in the precision of it. If it’s a process you enjoy however, go for it! You’ll likely end up eating more healthful seeds.
If you are having irregular or otherwise problematic cycles, take a look through the below articles I’ve written over the years. If you’re in New York and would like one on one help, please reach out!
Additional Articles from my Blog:
How The Wisdom Of Traditional Chinese Medicine Can Help You Optimize Your Cycles
Listen Up: Your Cervical Mucus is Trying To Tell You Something
The Menstrual Cycle According to Traditional Chinese Medicine
Trustworthy Resources on Seeds and Seed Cycling:
Desiree Nielsen RD, “How To Eat Flax Seeds (And Why You Want To!)
Nicola Rinaldi: “No Period Or Irregular Periods? Flax Seed Might Help”
Nicola Rinaldi: “Seed Cycling For No Period? Nope.”
Phipps WR, Martini MC, Lampe JW, Slavin JL, Kurzer MS. Effect of flax seed ingestion on the menstrual cycle. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1993 Nov;77(5):1215-9. doi: 10.1210/jcem.77.5.8077314. PMID: 8077314
Adolphe, J., Whiting, S., Juurlink, B., Thorpe, L., & Alcorn, J. (2010). Health effects with consumption of the flax lignan secoisolariciresinol diglucoside. British Journal of Nutrition, 103(7), 929-938. doi:10.1017/S0007114509992753