But if your body produces too much or too little of each hormone, an imbalance occurs. This can manifest as a range of symptoms, the dietician Jessica Bippen, MS, RD says: heavy, missing, or irregular periods; bloating and weight gain; hormonal acne; frequent mood fluctuations and low libido; painful cramps; brain fog; and difficulty sleeping. Dieticians like Bippen claim that seed cycling’s recommended diet of pumpkin, flax, sesame, and sunflower seeds might help rebalance those hormones and reduce the related symptoms.
It may seem “a little woo-woo,” Bippen admits, but there is some logic behind why seed cycling could help correct an imbalance. During the follicular phase, flax seeds deliver phytoestrogens, which are plant-based compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen, and fiber, which can help ease PMS symptoms, says Jolene Brighten, NMD, a naturopathic practitioner and author of Beyond the Pill.
The phytoestrogens come in the form of lignans, she explains, which are estrogen-like molecules that offer some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and that can increase or decrease your estrogen levels as needed. Though the effects appear weak, some studies have linked flax seed consumption to improved menstrual regularity and hormone balance. Pumpkin seeds, which are rich in zinc and vitamin E, says Brighten, have also been shown to boost reproductive health.
During the luteal phase, sesame seeds help support progesterone production, says Bippen. Sunflower seeds, sesame’s luteal copilot, contain vitamin E and magnesium as well as antioxidants like phenolic acids and flavonoids, which Bippen says could “have a hormone balancing effect.” Studies show that vitamin E, through its roles as an antioxidant, has been associated with healthy levels of progesterone. Likewise, the magnesium in sunflower seeds could help reduce cramps, Brighten adds, among other PMS symptoms.
Since starting seed cycling, Petya’s symptoms have improved so much that she doesn’t care if the science is tenuous. After just seven months, her cramps have noticeably eased and she can’t remember the last time she had a pimple or bad bloating. But the biggest shift, Petya says, was in the mood swings. It’s not that her emotions don’t change at all, but they’re more of a blip, “not that huge crash,” she says.
What are the limitations—and perils—of seed cycling?
The problem with seed cycling is that we have virtually no research on the practice, says Desiree Nielsen, RD, a registered dietitian, host of The Allsorts Podcast, and author of the cookbook Eat More Plants. And while she’s all for people eating more seeds—“they’re nutrient dense and packed with healthy fats and critical minerals”—we have very little data to support the claims around hormone balance. “There is always a kernel of truth in internet wellness,” she says, citing research on the effects of flax, vitamin E, and zinc. “But it’s a giant leap to say that eating these four seeds in a specific cycle does anything.”
Dana, a 36-year-old woman from Charleston, North Carolina, discovered seed cycling after over two years of struggling to conceive. Her naturopathic practitioner suggested she try the practice in order to boost her fertility, so, filled with hope, Dana started making energy balls packed with the seeds “every goddamned morning.” She was already doing everything in her power to alter her fertility, such as going to acupuncture once a week and avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and sugar. “I was dedicating so much time and energy to getting pregnant,” she says, and “I just wasn’t.”