Instagram is ground zero for wellness trends, and if you look closely at some of the recently posted rainbow-colored smoothie bowls and no-cook energy bites, you’ll likely see posts and pictures promoting something else entirely: seed cycling.
“Seed cycling is a great way to start seeing the power of food and its effect on your shifting hormones throughout the month,” Well+Good Council member, FLOLiving creator, and popular women’s hormonal health expert Alisa Vitti, HHC, previously told Well+Good. The practice also been promoted by influencers like Lee From America blogger Lee Tighlman, as well as other popular holistic health experts, as a way to improve hormonal balance—and thus boost fertility.
But what is seed cycling exactly, and what do seeds have to do with hormonal health? Here’s everything you need to know about the perpetually buzzy wellness trend, straight from health experts.
Seed cycling 101
Seed cycling is the naturopathic concept of eating certain seeds in specific dosages and times during the month in order to regulate and normalize your menstrual cycle, says Chiti Parikh, MD, executive director of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing program at NewYork-Presbyterian. Proponents of the practice say that the nutrients present in these foods can help balance a person’s hormonal levels (particularly their estrogen and progesterone, two hormones that dictate the bulk of what happens during your cycle), and thus support healthy ovulation and overall period health.
During the first part of your menstrual cycle, aka the follicular phase, you’re supposed to eat one to two tablespoons a day of both flaxseed and pumpkin seeds to encourage estrogen production (which helps grow the uterine lining during this phase, as well as boost sex drive). During the luteal phase, which is the last 14 days of your cycle, you’re supposed to switch to one tablespoons each of sunflower and sesame seeds per day to promote progesterone production (which helps stabilize the uterine lining and prepare your uterus for a potential baby).
This obviously requires an in-depth knowledge of your unique cycle’s rhythms. For example, some people have shorter periods than others or ovulate at slightly different points in their cycle, and thus might time their seed eating differently. But fans of seed cycling say that eating in this way to promote healthy levels of these hormones can improve everything from acne and PMS to fertility and PCOS symptom.
What does the research say?
There is certainly merit to the idea that seeds can be beneficial for hormonal health (and thus, fertility). Nuts and seeds are “very rich in something called phytoestrogens, or lignans,” says Dr. Parikh. “What they do is help modulate and improve your body’s ability to enhance estrogen’s effect. [And] recent studies have suggested that the most important health benefit of a lot of these nuts and seeds is really mediated by their prebiotic effect; these nuts and seeds have different types of fiber that actually enhance growth of certain good bacteria in the gut, and these bacteria in the gut, we’re learning, play an extremely important role in modulating your hormones.”
Seeds may be a factor in your hormonal health. But there’s no research out there to support the cycling part of the equation.
There’s some limited research that has linked seeds (and certain compounds they contain) to hormonal benefits. For example, one small study back in 1993 found that flaxseed powder consumption was associated with more ovulatory cycles and longer luteal phases. Other research has found that omega-3 fatty acids (which are prevalent in many seeds, including flaxseed) promotes progesterone secretion in animals. More recently, a 2012 German study found that eating sunflower and pumpkin seeds was associated with significantly reduced breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women compared to no consumption.
So, yes, seeds may be a factor in your hormonal health. But the kicker—and it’s a major one—is that there’s no research out there to support the cycling part of the equation. “There has been research on the benefits of eating specific seeds to nutritionally support your hormones but not on the connection between the suggested seed cycling protocol and hormonal balance,” writes Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, and host of Well+Good’s You Versus Food series in her new book, The Better Period Food Solution.
Looking for other foods that can support a healthy period? Check out these dietitian-approved picks:
Is seed cycling worth it?
All of that said, it’s definitely not a bad thing to think about infusing a reasonable amount of seeds into your diet. They provide nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamin E, and zinc, says Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults who eat around 1,600 or 1,800 calories a day should get four half-ounce servings of nuts or seeds a week. And as Maples points out, the average weekly intake of seeds and nuts for women ages 19 to 30 is nowhere near that recommendation.
“Adding a nutrient-rich food like seeds would be a way of bumping up the nutrition, and then hopefully crowding out some of the foods we don’t need as much of, like foods that have more sugar, foods that have more saturated fat, or just foods that have more calories,” says Maples.
Specifically in terms of fertility, the Mediterranean diet, which is high in veggies and fruits, whole grains, beans, olive oil, and, notably, seeds and nuts, has been associated with higher rates of IVF success. (And other fertility experts love it.)
Another incidental benefit of seed cycling is that it encourages you to eat a variety of types of seeds, and diversity is a staple of strong overall nutrition, Dr. Parikh says. “Mixing it up,” she says, “gives you a very different profile of micronutrients.”
The verdict? Cycling your seeds isn’t harmful—it just sounds like a lot of work for something without much research to back it up. Eating the recommended amount of different types of seeds and nuts, though? That’s something to get behind for bunch of health-based reasons, our experts say.