When a 44-year-old woman from New York City recently walked into the office of Dr. Gabrielle Francis, she was experiencing serious perimenopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, night sweats, low libido, and the loss of her period. Dr. Francis, a naturopathic doctor, chiropractor, acupuncturist, and licensed massage therapist, who is also known as The Herban Alchemist, tested her patient’s hormones and found that, while her estrogen and progesterone levels were very low, she hadn’t yet reached menopause.
“She was a candidate for bio-identical hormone replacement,” Dr. Francis says, referring to man-made hormones that are often used in treatments for people whose own hormones are low or out of balance. “But because she had a family history of breast cancer, I decided I did not want to use hormones with her.”
Instead, Dr. Francis took an alternative approach. “I recommended that she eat flax seeds and take one tablespoon of flax oil from the full moon to the new moon. I recommended that she take one tablespoon of evening primrose oil from the new moon to the full moon.”
The treatment worked. Dr. Francis says her patient was back to a normal 28-day cycle four months after starting the new regimen.
While this protocol may seem unconventional by Western medical standards, it is a take on a centuries-old practice that some holistic healers swear by. Known as “seed cycling,” this naturopathic regimen involves eating certain seeds (or seed-derived oils) at specific times of the month to regulate hormones. Proponents say adhering to the principles of seed cycling can help alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions like endometriosis, and it can improve issues like mood swings, cramps, and even acne.
While there have been a few small studies suggesting seeds like flax can play a role in supporting the production of sex hormones, there is very limited scientific evidence indicating the effectiveness of seed cycling as an overall practice for optimal hormonal balance. But the anecdotal testimony of the protocol’s success suggests, for some women, it might be worth a try.
What Is Seed Cycling?
“Seed cycling is a nutritional method that promotes the philosophy that it’s possible to regulate and balance estrogen and progesterone by eating certain seeds,” Dr. Francis says. The most common way women seed cycle is to consume certain seeds that are thought to promote estrogen production during the first half of the menstrual cycle (“the follicular phase,” or days 1-14) and then alternate to other seeds that are said to encourage progesterone production in the second half (“the luteal phase,” or days 14-28).
According to Dr. Francis, seed cycling typically involves eating flax and pumpkin seeds during the follicular phase and then switching to sunflower and sesame seeds in the luteal phase. “Flax is a well-known phytoestrogen plant and is documented to support balancing estrogen levels,” she says. "Pumpkin seeds have phytonutrients that can help to promote healthy testosterone and estrogen balance and metabolism. There are nutrients in sunflower and sesame seeds that help to metabolize and break down estrogen, while enhancing the production of progesterone.”
Dr. Francis adds that all four seeds are nutritionally dense, with high levels of omega fatty acids, nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, which is likely why seed cycling advocates believe they can have a profound impact on fertility. The same nutrients in the seeds may also have an impact on skin health. “All omega oils and seeds have lots of vitamins and minerals which feed skin,” Dr. Francis says. “They have vitamin E, which helps the skin and cell membranes — vitamin E is a strong antioxidant that helps the integrity of the skin collagen. The omega oils help to increase skin plumpness, softness, hydration and make the skin look years younger.”
Where Does This Practice Come From?
While it’s unclear when, where, and how seed cycling originated, Dr. Francis says the practice falls perfectly in line with other protocols in naturopathic medicine, a field that relies on holistic methods of healing and natural lifestyle modifications. “Naturopathic doctors have long used herbs and foods to restore hormone balance and health,” she says. “Most indigenous cultures and ancient wisdom medicines are aware of the ability of herbs, foods, plants, and essential oils to balance the hormones and women’s cycles. There are many naturally occurring plants and foods that promote the activity of different hormones.”
“My stance is that it's great to take things into your own hands, but when a woman has menstrual irregularity, it is extremely important to me to know why,” says San Francisco Bay Area-based fertility doctor, Aimee D. Eyvazzadeh, aka the Egg Whisperer. “Is it from polycystic ovary syndrome? Is it from hypothalamic amenorrhea [a condition in which a problem in the hypothalamus causes menstruation to stop]? Is it from decreased ovarian reserve, a condition in which a woman has fewer eggs than average and could go into menopause sooner?”
According to Eyvazzadeh, getting to the root cause of the issue affects the course of treatment and may go a long way in preventing women from spinning their wheels while trying to troubleshoot their own menstrual problems. “There are simple hormone tests a doctor can do, in conjunction with an ultrasound and history review to confirm the right diagnosis,” she says. “After that, would seed cycling help you? It is possible! I do think that food is medicine and there is a lot of to be said about how the foods we eat affect our mood, energy, and even menstrual cycle.”
Want to Try It? Here’s What You Should Do
If you’re interested in giving seed cycling a try, it’s important to remember that there is no hard science to back up its effectiveness, and it’s always a good idea to work with a health expert who can help guide you.
That said, there’s likely little harm to giving the protocol a go, although you should keep a few potential risks in mind. “[Seeds] are high in calories and can add some weight in some people,” Francis says. “They may cause bloating if you take them whole and do not grind, and the seeds swell up when you drink water, and they may expand in the abdomen.”
Dr. Francis says an easy way to add seeds to your diet is to add one to two tablespoons of flax or pumpkin seeds to smoothies, yogurt, and salads during days 1-14 of your cycle. During days 15-28, try swapping in one to two tablespoons of sunflower or sesame seeds to those meals and snacks. “Either raw or ground can work,” Dr. Francis says, noting that she prefers to measure out one to tablespoons of raw seeds before grinding them in order to retain the integrity of the oil. “However, ground seeds are easier to digest. They must be eaten shortly after grinding to preserve the integrity of the oils.”
If seeds just aren’t your thing, Dr. Francis says you can also do this practice with omega oils, adding flax oil to your diet on days 1-14, and primrose oil on days 15-28. “They can be added to anything that does not involve heating or cooking,” she says. “That would denature the oils and make them less effective.”
So how do you know if the practice is working for you and how long can it take to see any tangible effects? “Results can take anywhere from one month to three,” Dr. Francis says. “If there’s no results by month three, it is not helpful, but it’s also not hurtful. I have never heard of someone having a negative reaction to seed cycling or oil cycling unless they were allergic to the specific nuts or seeds.” While it’s very unlikely that there will be any major downside to dabbling in seed cycling, you may want to focus your efforts elsewhere if you haven’t experienced a noticeable difference in your symptoms by the end of your third month.
Given the limited research on the potential benefits of seed cycling, experts say it’s best to set realistic expectations and proceed with an open, but cautious, mind. “Think of it as a fun thing to try and experiment with,” Dr. Francis says. “I am fully supportive of any health adventure that will not be harmful and can bring more consciousness to the effects of food and lifestyle on health.”
Dr. Francis also adds that in addition to cycle normalization, seed consumption may have other potential benefits. “It supports the brain and neurochemistry, helps immunity, and helps reduce inflammation — all the benefits that you get from omega oils.” she says.
“For me as a fertility doc, the benefit of having a patient seed cycling is that this brings her menstrual cycle literacy,” Eyvazzadeh says. “Menstrual cycle literacy could then turn into her having an easier time getting pregnant once it's time.”