07/19/2024

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After giving birth in 2017, Petya experienced painful menstrual cramps and intense PMS symptoms. “I was very emotional and nervous,” says the 41-year-old product manager, who lives in Memphis, Tenn. (She asked us not to share her last name.) “My relationship was miserable, and I just felt crazy.” Her gynecologist prescribed her Prozac, an antidepressant sometimes used to treat PMS symptoms – but it caused a host of negative side effects, such as poor sleep and cold sweats. Feeling desperate and misunderstood, Petya stopped taking the pills.

Then, late last year, she discovered Seed Cycle through an Instagram post.

Petya is originally from Bulgaria, where she says food is often seen as medicine. “So I just thought, what’s the downside of trying it?” Petya says of Zoom while sipping on a purple smoothie, which she makes every morning with bananas, frozen berries, nut butter and a spoonful of ground seeds she buys online. “It’s just food, right?”

Seed cycling is a dietary therapy that some claim is designed to improve hormonal health. It was allegedly popularized in 2012 by naturopathic practitioner Lindsey Jesswein. According to WebMD, naturopathic medicine uses “natural remedies to help the body heal itself. The practice involves eating a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds a day during the first half of the menstrual cycle and a tablespoon of sesame seeds and sunflower seeds a day during the second half. The theory – based on Jesswein’s advice – is that these seed combinations contain the natural compounds our bodies need to balance estrogen and progesterone levels, which may help improve PMS, acne and painful cramps, among other menstrual-related symptoms.

Scientific evidence on these benefits is limited, but it has become popular. According to Google Trends, interest in seed cycling has been growing steadily over the past few years. Interest in related search topics such as “estrogen dominance” and “menstrual irregularities” has also increased. While many influencers on Instagram and TikTok are hawking the #SeedCycling gospel – with new brands like Beeya and Phasey selling seed blends in beautiful packaging – modern practices stem from a hodgepodge of ancient traditions, primarily traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, both of which have long used nutrition to support hormonal health.

Some nutritionists see seed cycling as nutritional misinformation based on junk science. Classic internet nonsense. Others advise patients to give it a try, especially those like Petya who are frustrated or disillusioned with modern medicine, which still has much to learn about the menstrual body. American curiosity about the seed cycle is also on the rise, while couples increasingly rely on technology to conceive, endometriosis affects about 10% of menstruating patients, and the insurance industry still classifies many “women’s issues” as elective.

So it’s understandable that we want the Internet to solve our health problems. But does seed cycling really work?

How should seed cycling help with menstrual problems?
When your hormones are working as expected, estrogen rises during the follicular phase of your cycle, starting on the first day of menstrual bleeding and continuing for about 14 days until ovulation. Then, during the luteal phase, which lasts for about 14 days, from ovulation to the first day of your next period, progesterone levels rise while estrogen slowly declines.

However, if your body produces too much or too little of each hormone, an imbalance can occur. This can manifest as a range of symptoms, says dietitian Jessica Bippen, MS, RD: heavy, missing or irregular periods; bloating and weight gain; hormonal acne; frequent mood swings and low libido; painful cramps; brain fog; and difficulty sleeping. Nutritionists like Bippen claim that the Seed Cycle-recommended diet of pumpkin, flaxseed, sesame and sunflower seeds may help rebalance these hormones and reduce related symptoms.

Bippen admits that it may seem “a little woo-woo,” but there is some logic behind the Seed Cycle’s ability to help correct imbalances. Jolene Brighten, a naturopathic physician and author of Beyond the Pill, says that during the follicular phase, flaxseed releases phytoestrogens, plant-based compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen, and that fiber helps alleviate PMS symptoms.

Phytoestrogens come in the form of lignans, which are estrogen-like molecules with some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that can increase or decrease estrogen levels as needed, she explains. Although the effects appear to be weak, some studies have linked flaxseed consumption to improved menstrual regularity and hormone balance. Pumpkin seeds, which are rich in zinc and vitamin E, have also been shown to promote reproductive health, Brighten said.

During the luteal phase, sesame seeds help support the production of progesterone, Bippen said. Sunflower seeds, a luteal byproduct of sesame seeds, contain vitamin E and magnesium, as well as antioxidants such as phenolic acids and flavonoids, which Bippen says may “have a hormone balancing effect. Studies have shown that vitamin E is associated with healthy luteinizing hormone levels through its role as an antioxidant. Similarly, the magnesium in sunflower seeds may help reduce cramping, Brighten adds, as well as other PMS symptoms.

Since starting the seed cycle, Petya’s symptoms have improved so much that she doesn’t care if the science is weak. After just seven months, her cramps have subsided significantly, and she can’t remember the last time she had acne or severe bloating. But the biggest shift, Petya says, has been the mood swings. Not that her moods haven’t changed at all, but they’re more of a blip, “not as big of a crash,” she says.

What are the limitations and risks of seed cycling?
The problem with seed cycling is that we’ve done little research on the practice, says Desiree Nielsen, a registered dietitian, host of The Allsorts podcast and author of the cookbook Eat More Plants. While she fully supports people who eat more seeds – “they’re nutrient dense and full of healthy fats and key minerals” – we have little data to support what the hormone balance claims. “There’s always a core of truth to Internet health,” she says, citing studies on the effects of flax, vitamin E and zinc. “But to say that eating these four seeds during a given cycle has any effect is a huge leap.”

Dana, a 36-year-old woman from Charleston, N.C., discovered the seed cycle after more than two years of trying to conceive. Her naturopathic practitioner suggested she try the practice to improve her fertility, so a hopeful Dana began making seed-filled energy balls “every morning. She was already doing what she could to change her fertility, such as going to acupuncture once a week and avoiding caffeine, alcohol and sugar. “I spent a lot of time and energy trying to get pregnant,” she says, “but I didn’t.”

She stuck with the seed cycle for a few months, but all her hormone tests returned to normal. Finally, at her lowest point, Dana went to a fertility specialist, who found she had another problem altogether. “My egg quality was poor,” she says, “so seed cycling wasn’t helping me.” Not only did the practice give Dana a false sense of commitment, but given her history of eating disorders, it sparked years of control issues around food. “I think it just generated a lot of dangerous ideas,” she says.

In addition to the lack of robust research on seed cycling, Nielsen believes the trend is overly optimistic, leading people like Dana to blame themselves or to develop eating disorders if the protocol doesn’t work. It also leads people with periods to internalize the idea that their bodies need to behave in certain ways to stay healthy, she says, which “medicalizes the normal changes of menstruation to sell ‘health cures.'” – Optimizing the era of barre classes and kale salads, Nelson says the daily diligence needed to sow the cycle could be better spent on things that actually make us healthy, “like resting, socializing and making a living so we can afford healthy food. “

Is the seed cycle right for you?
Nielsen acknowledges that seed cycling may actually help some people: those who suffer from hormonal imbalances due to a lack of seed-specific nutrients, or those who experience the placebo effect, which can be very powerful. By adopting new patterns or behaviors, such as seed cycling, people with menstrual problems may be able to reduce their feelings of despair. Basically, “if the brain believes things will improve, it can improve them,” Nielsen says.

In Memphis, Petya says she’s finally regained herself and doesn’t mind daily life, placebo or not, as long as it means the relief she’s experiencing continues. “I’ve been telling all my friends about the seed cycle,” she says. “I honestly feel like one of those women who gets caught up in the pyramid scheme.”

For those who want to try seed cycling, nutritionist Bippen suggests adding ground seeds to smoothies, yogurt, toast, salad dressings or pesto. However, she warns that it’s “not a panacea. She says hormone imbalances can be caused by many factors, including medications, stress, digestive problems, poor sleep and more. Essentially, if you don’t feel as hot in other categories, you can’t expect miracles from the seed cycle. And, as always, if you have reservations, consult your doctor or gynecologist.

Even though seed cycling didn’t improve her infertility issues, in Charleston, Dana still adds flax to her smoothies every morning because they’re a delicious treat. “If you want to try them, then go for it,” she advises. “Just don’t put too much pressure on any one ‘cure’ and try to gather as much hormonal health data as you can first.”

Even Nelson, who worries that seed cycling sometimes appears in her social messages, supports a seed-rich diet, noting that “adding seeds to your diet is always a good thing.”

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