Seed cycling has long been used to support women's hormones by supplying them with the nutrients they need at specific phases of their cycle. I recommend seed cycling for hormone balance in both my clinic and book, Beyond the Pill, because it is an effective and gentle way to support women's hormones.
In this article I’m going to help you understand what seed cycling is, how to do it, what to expect and what it can help with.
Seed Cycling Overview
- Follicular Phase – Ovulation (Days 1-14): eat 1-2 tablespoons each of raw, fresh ground flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds
- Ovulation-Luteal Phase (Days 15-28): eat 1-2 tablespoons each of raw, fresh ground sunflower and sesame seeds
If you ovulate at a different time in your cycle then switch the seeds accordingly. If your period comes regularly at a different time (eg 26 days instead of 28) then switch the seeds accordingly. If you're not cycling, keep reading.
Seed cycling is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. While we start with basic guidelines to help women get dialed in, it is important to honor what your cycle is, your health needs, and how you feel when you engage in seed cycling.
What is Seed Cycling?
Seed cycling is the practice of eating specific seeds to support the key hormones of each phase in the menstrual cycle. Personally, I’ve been seed cycling for the last ten years and as you’ll read later on, I’m neither perfect nor dogmatic about it.
I’ll explain exactly how to do this in a bit, but know the key seeds you will use are flaxseeds, pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame seeds.
I first learned about seed cycling, along with other specific diet and lifestyle practices to support each phase of the menstrual cycle, in naturopathic medical school. In fact, my mentor authored a book detailing seed cycling about 20 years ago after 20 years of clinical experience. That’s 40 years of seed cycling being prescribed to women!
Can You Start Seed Cycling Mid-Cycle?
Yes, you can pick up seed cycling wherever you are in your cycle. If you know which day your last period was then you can start with the seeds that correspond with where you are in your cycle.
How Does Seed Cycling Work?
Seed cycling provides the specific nutrients to help build your hormones. As you'll read in my book, Beyond the Pill, I recommend seed cycling at any stage in a woman's life and find it especially helpful for women coming off of birth control or struggling with post-birth control syndrome symptoms like acne, irregular periods, or new onset of PMS.
To use seed cycling you need to know a few things. You’ll be tracking your menstrual cycle and changing your seeds to match the phase you are in. Day one is the first day you experience your period (there is a flow). That will be the day you begin the follicular phase seeds and you’ll continue through ovulation or day 14.
The practice is quite simple, beginning the first day of your cycle you'll eat 1-2 tablespoons of fresh ground flaxseeds and raw pumpkin seeds, which supports both estrogen production and metabolism. It's a great way to create balanced estrogen, which is key during the follicular phase.
Following ovulation, which can vary for each woman, you will switch to 1-2 tablespoons each of raw sunflower and sesame seeds. For the purpose of seed cycling, we generally change to these seeds at day 15 of the cycle, but if you’re tracking your ovulation then you can switch seeds the day following ovulation. Sunflower and sesame seeds support progesterone levels, which is the key hormone during the luteal phase (the phase following ovulation until your next period).
Seed cycling is a practice that supports the nutrition and lifestyle therapies you may already be using. Seed cycling is considered a “food as medicine” practice, but it doesn't mean it is a substitute for a medication you require. In other words, you can't swap out seeds for a pharmaceutical treating a diagnosed medical condition. Seed cycling is meant to support what your body does naturally—building hormones and eliminating excess.
Seed Cycling Science
Seeds have been found to have many benefits from supporting cardiovascular health to being protective against cancer. In addition, as the advancement of research in the microbiome continues (the organisms that science once thought were “freeloaders” in the gut), we are learning more and more about how different foods enable the critters that grow in our gut to thrive and in turn, support our health. For example, eating a fiber rich diet supports the elimination of excess hormones like estrogen via the bowels.
At the time I'm writing this, you won't find a study using the term “seed cycling” as a searchable term. The truth about most studies is that there must be a return on investment (ROI) for a company to invest in the research to be done. In a perfect world we'd be studying so much more than the financial limitations we currently experience. I would love to see additional research in this arena.
But despite “seed cycling” not showing up in the literature yet, there is science to support the individual nutritional properties and health benefits of the seeds used.
Seed Cycling Research
Flaxseeds are hands down the most widely studied lignan containing seeds, probably because they are the highest concentration. The lignans in flaxseeds have been associated a longer luteal phase, that is the time from ovulation until the start of your next period.
Lignans have been found to have both estrogen supportive and protective benefits. Some research has shown that flaxseed lignans interact with the gut microbiome to produce protective effects against the development of breast cancer.
Lignans have been shown to be beneficial in multiple cardiovascular studies, but in all fairness, these studies (like too many) are only conducted on men. This means the results apply to men, but your doc most likely told you as a woman it applies too. MAYBE. But we must recognized we create and birth life, then feed that small human via our breasts, making us very different from our male counterparts.
Seed Cycling Follicular Phase
During the first half of your cycle (follicular phase), estrogen is your main hormone that rises and spikes to trigger ovulation. Testosterone also rises prior to ovulation, which gets you in the mood and ready for “baby-making.” Look, whether you want a baby or not, your biology will keep this cycle going…and that's a good thing.
Zinc, which is rich in pumpkin seeds, supports healthy testosterone levels. In addition, pumpkin seeds are rich in antioxidants, which are protective of our ovaries, eggs, and reproductive system. Flaxseeds have weak estrogenic properties, but also help with excess estrogen elimination to the help support optimal estrogen levels.
Pumpkin seeds are also a source of tryptophan, which the body uses to create serotonin and melatonin. Interestingly, a study published in 2005 in Nutritional Neuroscience concluded that eating tryptophan rich seeds from a gourd (pumpkins are a gourd, in case you're wondering) along with a carbohydrate was as beneficial as a pharmaceutical for the treatment of insomnia. Sleep definitely has an impact on our hormonal health and if you've ever had a hormone imbalance, then you know sleep can be an issue. This may be why some women report improved sleep after a couple of months using seed cycling.
Seed Cycling for Luteal Phase
Sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are rich in lignans and fatty acids to support the luteal phase. Sesame seeds have been shown to be beneficial to women's hormones even through menopause.
Sesame seeds may also help to lower inflammation, as multiple studies have demonstrated. They have also been shown to protect heart health by modulating inflammation and support cholesterol metabolism. As I explain in chapter 2 of Beyond the Pill, your sex hormones are made from cholesterol. And if you've been reading drbrighten.com then you know that inflammation causes a response from the adrenal glands, which can lead to a hormone imbalance.
Sunflower seeds contain nutrients like iron, which support estrogen detoxification via CYP liver genes and magnesium, which can support healthy prostaglandin levels and may reduce period cramps. They are also a source of calcium, which has been shown in some studies to reduce mood related issues of PMS. Vitamin E, which sunflower seeds can be a significant food source of, has also been shown to reduce PMS in supplement form.
Seed Cycling Myth
Seed cycling has been used by women for decades. Personally, I started seed cycling before I transitioned off of birth control and have continued since. It's a simple ritual to include nutrient dense foods and support variety in my diet. Anecdotally, I do feel better. But I encourage, like always, you to ask if the seed cycling benefits are true for you.
Over the years I've watched seed cycling increase in popularity with many women touting the benefits they've experienced. I love reading these accounts. There are many anecdotal stories circulating that sometimes paint seed cycling as the “cure all” for any hormonal condition. I want to be very clear that seed cycling is a dietary practice aimed at supporting your hormones and supplying your body with the nutrients and building blocks to do what it does best.
But when I see statements like, “seed cycling can cure cancer,” I gotta encourage some caution. Not only because cancer is complicated, but also because you cannot do just one thing and expect everything to be amaze. I wish that wasn't true, but sadly, it'll take more than seed cycling to prevent cancer. This is why provide you oodles of support on this site to help you live your best life!
Some critics have claimed seed cycling is a myth because you can't find a study that uses the term “seed cycling.” The lack of evidence isn't proof that it doesn't support women's hormones, rather, it is only proof that science hasn't asked the question or tried to demonstrate evidence. When it comes to food science and nutrition, we need a lot more humility to discern that we are very early in our understanding of the complex interplay between nutrition and health. Let's not forget that we have only recently discovered the role of the microbiome in our health—organisms that maintain health and are maintained, in part, by the food that we eat.
What you will find on PubMed and cited here are the nutritional benefits of each of the seeds and how they can help create more optimal hormones as part of a holistic lifestyle practice.
It is very important to understand that when seed cycling is used clinically there are other therapies employed as well. You wouldn't expect to skimp on sleep, stop drinking water, never exercise and then just seed cycle your way out of the hormonal chaos that follows. 🙄
But there are some silly critics who think this is how it works. Sadly, they think that this is how the world works—one intervention for one condition. No, that is how a pharmaceutical is supposed to work. And we can be grateful for and leverage pharmaceuticals, while we also seed cycling. 😉
And for some women, leveraging pharmaceuticals will be part of their healing journey, along with using food to support their health needs. For example, if you have period problems due to autoimmune thyroiditis then you may benefit from using thyroid medication along with diet and lifestyle therapies. Because if your doc prescribes Levothyroxine then you still need to move your body to convert it to the active form, T3. And if you don't, well those thyroid problems will likely become period problems.
Read about how your thyroid is related to your menstrual cycle.
Do Flaxseeds Balance Estrogen?
Fresh ground flaxseeds are an excellent way to balance estrogen without pushing you towards estrogen dominance, a common cause of heavy periods and PMS. Flaxseeds are rich in lignans, which have a weak estrogenic effect.
Research has shown these lignans to be beneficial in improving estrogen and progesterone ratios, preventing heart disease, and can even support healthy bones.
I often recommend women leverage seed cycling along with Balance – Women's Hormone Support supplement in order to optimize their estrogen levels naturally.
Seed Cycling for Menopause
Seed cycling can be used post-menopause by following the moon cycle. To learn more about the benefits of seed cycling in peri-menopause and menopause read Seed Cycling for Menopausal Hormones.
Can Seed Cycling Help with Breast Tenderness?
Cyclical breast tenderness is a common complaint among women. It typically comes on right before your period. There have been studies showing improvement in symptoms when flaxseeds are included regularly in the diet.
And there have also been studies that have shown the lignans found in pumpkin seeds may be beneficial in preventing breast cancer.
Seed Cycling for Painful Periods
Seed cycling can help with painful period cramps! In fact, the cause of those painful periods is rooted in excess prostaglandins, estrogen dominance and inflammation. Because these seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids then can help lower inflammation and the effects of prostaglandins. The lignans and nutrients support the elimination of estrogen in the body so that you don’t run into issues with estrogen dominance.
While seed cycling can be excellent for alleviating period pain, I typically encourage my patients to leverage magnesium, fish oil, and Balance for at least a few months while the seeds work their magic.
Can Seed Cycling Help PCOS Symptoms?
Seeds are a great source of zinc, which supports healthy testosterone production. Testosterone is an androgen and in PCOS, androgens are responsible for the hair loss, acne, and hirsutism (hair growth on the face, chest and abdomen) that is commonly experienced by women with PCOS.
Research has shown that women consuming flaxseeds have more favorable levels of androgens and the fibers help with estrogen elimination while also supporting gut health. These seeds are also rich in essential fatty acids, which support healthy oil production and decrease inflammation. Other nutrients, like zinc, found in these seeds are important for skin health and acne management.
You can read more about how to approach PCOS here.
Can Seed Cycling Help with Acne?
Acne can be due to a number of factors including excess testosterone, estrogen dominance, poor gut health, inefficient liver detoxification, and lack of quality nutrients in the diet. Acne is also common when women come off of birth control due to what is called an androgen rebound, an increase in testosterone production after stopping birth control. This is why I recommend women begin seed cycling when coming off of birth control in Beyond the Pill.
Is Seed Cycling Safe?
Seed cycling is a safe and effective way to support your hormones and your body. If you have an allergy to seeds then obviously, seed cycling isn't for you. But otherwise, this is a very gentle way to give your body what it needs to bring hormones into balance.
How to Start Seed Cycling
The practice works best when the seeds are fresh ground and they definitely need to be raw. As I explain in Beyond the Pill, you can add these seeds to a variety of dishes and include them in smoothies. And yes, there are definitely recipes included in the book!
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Make a fresh seed butter to enjoy with fresh fruit, on gluten-free toast, or mixed into a smoothie
- Make a raw seed based granola
- Sprinkle them on salads
- Include them in a no-bake energy bar or cookie recipe
- Enjoy a homemade raw pumpkin seed pesto
- Whip up a fresh (untoasted) tahini
- Add them to your morning oatmeal
How Long Should You Practice Seed Cycling?
You'll want to give yourself a full cycle to note any changes. Typically, seed cycling needs to be coupled with other hormone supportive practices to have a noticeable effect. You can't expect to seed cycle and continue to dodge vegetables and skip sleep and create any real change to your hormones.
For some women, it can take up to 3 months to really notice an effect, although they typically note some improvement after their first month.
I encourage my patients to make it a lifelong practice. You don't have to be dogmatic about it, but it is a simple tool to support your hormone health and leverage food to create better hormones.
When we have symptoms, it is wise to use at least a tablespoon of each seed during the specific phases. Because I’ve been seed cycling so long I have days where I will do 2 tablespoons of just one of the seeds corresponding to the phase I’m in. And you know what? It still keeps me on track. In fact, if my patients struggle with the practice or need to avoid a particular seed because of sensitivities then I’ll advise they just choose one from each phase and eat 2 tablespoons daily.
Do you seed cycle? Let me know in the comments below.
National Cancer Institute. Understanding Estrogen Receptors/SERMs. National Cancer Institute. January, 2005. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/understandingcancer/estrogenreceptors. Accessed April, 20, 2019.