Like many wellness practices that become trendy for months or years at a time before becoming pop-cultural joke material (before again becoming trendy), seed cycling first entered my consciousness via Instagram Discover, where I am often drawn to pictures of food-adjacent substances which have been beautifully and painstakingly staged. Often these are gloopy porridges, overlain with fruit and nuts and, more recently, seeds, though I also tend to see a lot of balls. It was on one such post that I saw the hashtag #seedcycling, of which there are nearly 5,500 on Instagram.
An initial Google search informed me that seed cycling is a naturopath-recommended remedy for hormonal imbalances like irregular periods, acne, PCOS, and infertility. A seed cycler will consume different combinations seeds for each phase of the menstrual cycle, such that they eat a tablespoon each of flax seeds and pumpkin seeds for the first 13–14 days of the cycle (also known as the follicular phase, when the follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone trigger an increase in the production of estrogen), and a tablespoon each of sesame and sunflower seeds for days 14–28 (also known as the luteal phase, when the uterus prepares for an egg to be fertilized). Like many other modern, Western wellness practices, Chinese medicine is cited as one source of inspiration for seed cycling, though vaguely — there is documented reference to something called the “Five-Seed Progeny Pill,” though its recipe includes none of the above mentioned seeds, and was meant to treat male infertility only. The modern seed cycling protocol seems to come from Lindsey Jesswein, a graduate of the National College of Natural Medicine, who described it in a 2012 blog post sometimes (but not always) cited by the many wellness bloggers who follow her recipe.
So why seeds? According to Jesswein, it’s because seed hulls contain lignans, a polyphenol found in plants. These, she writes “help modulate the hormonal pathways of the body.” Flax seeds, in particular, are rich in lignans, and one 2007 case study found support for their use in treating symptoms of PCOS, and an oft-cited study from 1993 suggests they can have a minor, positive impact on the menstrual cycle’s regularity. Still, most researchers agree that the link between lignans and hormonal health is not yet clear. The central hypothesis behind seed cycling, then, is that flax and pumpkin seeds are estrogenic (meaning they encourage the production of estrogen), while sesame and sunflower seeds are progesteronic (meaning they encourage the production of progesterone). For people with a healthy, normal menstrual cycle, both estrogen and progesterone are produced at appropriate levels to prepare the body for possible fertilization, though it is possible to be deficient in either. Possible causes include hormonal disorders, like PCOS, but also over exercise, undereating, and menopause — which is to say, not all causal factors are equal.
Though she agrees that flax seeds are part of a healthful diet, there is no academic research on the subject of seed cycling specifically, says registered dietitian Abby Langer. Even if these seeds do produce their advertised, hormone-balancing benefits, we have no research that tells us how much needs to be consumed to produce those effects, or in what way we should consume them. There is no reason to believe that one tablespoon of any of the above seeds correlates to any hormonal effect, and yet that is always the recommended amount — maybe because it is a tolerable amount to add to one’s smoothie bowl, or breakfast balls.
Nutritionally speaking, at least, seed cycling is probably a good thing, Langer says. “Seeds are healthy,” she says. “They have lots of monounsaturated fats, and they have some protein, and some fiber, and they’re good for us. They will likely impact your health — but for what people are taking them for, I’m not so sure.”
Still, plenty of people are willing to try it. My colleague Kelly Conaboy tells me she attempted seed cycling hoping for a more regular period and clearer skin, but had to quit 20 days in, when she got “absolutely insane hormonal acne and cramps like all the time.” Conaboy admits she’s skeptical that the seeds themselves created those effects, and says it’s likely her body just happened to “freak out” during that period coincidentally. Either way, she isn’t going back.
Another woman I spoke to, Jamie, was prescribed seed cycling by a naturopath/acupuncturist after struggling with irregular periods for her entire young adult life. Jamie, who was previously prescribed birth control but chose to go off it in an attempt to resolve the “core issue,” practiced seed cycling for eight months, during which time she experienced mildly shortened periods, from an average of 50–70 days down to 40–50, still well above the normal 28. “I wish I could say that magically my period was fixed thanks to flax, sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds at various points of the month, but alas, they weren’t that magical, in my case,” she says. The seeds were also expensive, and when she ran out of her supply, her naturopath suggested they try acupuncture instead.
For some, seed cycling offers what seems to be a “natural alternative” to birth control and other hormone-regulating medications, but Langer is wary of that line of thinking. “Food isn’t medicine,” she says. While food does directly impact our health and wellness, says Langer, it isn’t an effective substitute for medication in situations where one is recommended. (Langer’s take is directly in opposition to that of the wellness blog sphere, some of whom literally have variations on “Food is medicine” written in their Instagram bios.) That there is an increasing market for natural remedies is not surprising, especially among women who feel misunderstood and ignored by traditional medicine, and if an influencer or naturopath you like and trust recommends seed cycling, why not try it? So long as it’s part of one’s approach, and not the sum total, Langer sees few downsides, besides the work and cost involved. “It’s probably a worthwhile component of a treatment plan for something like acne, or anything resulting from a hormonal imbalance,” she says.
However, noting that some seed cycling recipes suggest primrose oil as an alternative to the sesame + sunflower seed mix (thus making the name of this thing a little misleading), Langer warns that primrose oil can cause several potentially dangerous interactions with other common medications, like anti-coagulants and anesthesia). “This is a good time to tell people that just because something is natural doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your pharmacist about it,” she says.