If you’ve been following Agni for a while now, you may be familiar with the concept of seed cycling, a powerful food as medicine practice that helps to balance hormones and regulate the menstrual cycle. Whether or not you’ve heard of this practice, you’re likely wondering how on earth it works! How is it that something so simple – eating specific seeds at certain times throughout the cycle – can have such a profound effect on the body?
The menstrual cycle is broken down into two phases – the follicular phase, which starts on the first day of the period and continues through ovulation, about halfway through the cycle; and the luteal phase, which begins after ovulation, and ends with the onset of the next period, when the follicular phase begins again. To put it simply, the first half of the menstrual cycle is dominated by estrogen, which helps prepare an egg (also called a follicle, hence follicular phase) for ovulation. After ovulation, the egg produces large amounts of progesterone, the dominant hormone of the luteal phase. Progesterone helps to maintain the lining of the uterus, to prepare for implantation if fertilization occurs.1
A simple way to support hormone balance throughout the menstrual cycle is to focus on balancing estrogen during the follicular phase, and supporting progesterone production in the luteal phase. This is the basic premise of seed cycling – consuming flax and pumpkin seeds daily for the first half of the cycle, and switching to sesame and sunflower seeds for the second half.
While there have not been any studies on the practice of seed cycling, we can look at the nutritional content of the seeds that are used to understand how it works. We also have decades of empirical evidence based on clinical experience!
Seeds are incredibly nutrient dense. In general, most seeds are high in essential fatty acids and protein, which are both necessary building blocks required for regular hormone production. Beyond providing the foundational macronutrients for hormone production, the specific types of seeds used in seed cycling have additional micronutrients that support both the production and the breakdown of estrogen and progesterone. The benefits of seed cycling go beyond hormone regulation. These seeds are fiber-rich superfoods, the regular consumption of which can help to reduce cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar, and provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection! All of these benefits can help support hormone balance downstream, while improving overall health.
Follicular Phase (days 1~14): Flax & Pumpkin Seeds for Estrogen Balance
Flax seeds are rich in a group of phytonutrients called lignans, which bind to inflammatory estrogen metabolites, the byproducts created as older, used up estrogen is broken down in the intestine. This ensures that potentially harmful excess estrogen gets excreted in the feces, reducing the body’s overall estrogen burden. At the same time, these lignans also act as phytoestrogens, meaning they mimic naturally occurring estrogen in the body by binding to estrogen receptors. By both eliminating excess estrogen and mimicking estrogen, flaxseeds can help to support overall estrogen balance during the follicular phase of the cycle.
One study found that in a group of cycling women who consumed flaxseeds daily, ovulation rates were significantly improved, as were estrogen to progesterone ratios, compared to previous cycles in which flaxseeds were not consumed.2 These women also were found to have a longer luteal phase when supplementing with flaxseeds, a measure that is considered protective, as a longer luteal phase supports the early stages of pregnancy when fertilization does occur.2
Pumpkin seeds, like flaxseeds, are rich in lignans that help to remove inflammatory estrogen metabolites. Furthermore, they are high in the mineral zinc, with one ounce (about ⅛ cup) providing 15% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA).3 Zinc is essential for the production of progesterone, and by consuming pumpkin seeds during the follicular phase of the cycle, you can help prime the body for progesterone production leading up to the luteal phase of the cycle. This is especially important for folks who have symptoms associated with low progesterone, such as migraines, depression and anxiety, and sleep disturbances – particularly when these issues correlate with the menstrual cycle, as they so often do. Pumpkin seeds are also an excellent source of magnesium, which can help mediate cramping around the menstrual cycle, reduce anxiety, and support healthy sleep patterns.
Luteal Phase (days 14~28): Sesame & Sunflower Seeds for Progesterone Balance
Sesame seeds, much like flax and pumpkin seeds, are rich in both lignans and zinc, helping to detoxify any excess estrogen in the body while supporting progesterone production.
Sunflower seeds contain high levels of vitamin E which also help to boost progesterone production.4 They are also an excellent source of selenium, an essential mineral micronutrient that helps support estrogen detoxification, as well as thyroid health, which plays an important role in maintaining hormone balance and supporting menstrual health.
For a regularly cycling person with an average cycle length of 28 days, you can consume 2tbsp of ground flax and pumpkin seeds on days 1-14, and 2 tbsp of ground sesame and sunflower seeds on days 15-28. You should be making the switch around ovulation, but if you’re not sure when you are ovulating, you can assume it’s happening around the halfway point in your cycle. If you’re curious, you could also use an ovulation predictor kit to understand when in your cycle you’re ovulating.
If your cycles are irregular, or you’re not having menstrual cycles currently, another approach is to rotate your seeds with the lunar cycles. Before the introduction of artificial lights and exogenous hormones in our food and medicine, women’s menstrual cycles naturally followed the phases of the moon. The new moon, representing menstruation and emptying, can be considered day 1, and the full moon, representing fullness and ripeness, can be considered day 14 or ovulation.
Best practice is to buy organic seeds in their whole, raw form, rather than pre-ground. When seeds are ground, they quickly begin to oxidize, creating rancid oils that are inflammatory, while losing some of their medicinal benefits. I typically recommend grinding a two week supply of seeds and storing them in a jar in the freezer, to prevent oxidation from occurring while simplifying your routine. Using a coffee grinder is an easy way to grind your seeds thoroughly. This is an important step because whole seeds are difficult to digest, making it harder for your body to absorb the nutrients that are so beneficial for hormone balance. Seeds can be added to a smoothie, tossed over a bowl of oatmeal or yogurt, in a salad, or on top of roasted veggies, or anything else that sounds good to you! Seed butters are another fun way to get your seeds in daily. Personally, I am a big fan of tahini dressing on salads, as well as sunflower seed butter paired with an apple and sprinkled with Agni’s cinnamon maca seasoning.
I have been recommending seed cycling in my practice for years, with overwhelmingly positive results. The folks who don’t see much benefit from seed cycling tend to be those who have a hard time incorporating the practice consistently. This is the biggest challenge with seed cycling, as it does require some preparation and planning, and is a bit more involved than popping a pill, which we as a society are generally more inclined to remember to do. However, for the patients who have been able to make seed cycling part of their daily routine for at least 3 months, I have seen profound changes including:
- PCOS patients who haven’t had a period in 6-12 months starting to ovulate and menstruate again
- Patients with irregular cycles experiencing consistently regular periods
- Patients with painful, heavy periods finding relief in symptoms and more manageable periods
- Patients with PMS and premenstrual acne noticing more stable mood and clearer skin around their periods
Beyond the benefits listed above, it can feel incredibly empowering to tune your awareness into the phases of your menstrual cycle, and seed cycling offers a very nourishing approach to doing so.
- Welt CK. Physiology of the normal menstrual cycle. Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate Inc. https://www.uptodate.com. Published March 17, 2017. Accessed January 21 2022.
- 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.
- National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements - Zinc [Internet]. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; [cited 2022Jan21]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
- Mutalip SM, Ab-Rahim S, Rajikin M. Vitamin E as an Antioxidant in Female Reproductive Health. Antioxidants. 2018;7(2):22.