“Doc, I think I have a hormone imbalance.” The majority of the women I see in my practice first come in with some form of hormone-related concern. If they are in their reproductive years, they may suffer from PMS, spotting between periods, painful periods, PCOS, cyclical acne, or irregular periods. In their pre-menopausal years, their period may still come but irregularly, accompanied with hot flashes, insomnia, lowered thyroid function, and other symptoms. Once in menopause, women still experience symptoms related to changes in their hormones.
Resolving those imbalances can seem complex and overwhelming at times, but never underestimate the power of what you put at the end of your fork: your food. One of the first dietary tools that I recommend to patients to help balance hormones is called seed cycling. I have seen this alone have a positive impact within 3 months in patients who do just that! Of course, most cases are much more complex and necessitate a multi-pronged approach. But the effectiveness of this simple and low cost therapy as a starting point should not be overlooked.
What is Seed Cycling?
Seed cycling uses specific estrogen-balancing and progesterone-balancing seeds at different times of your menstrual cycle in order to help shift and improve hormone imbalances. It is as simple as incorporating a total of 2 Tbsp of the specific seed(s) (I usually recommend a raw form) once a day, switching seeds halfway through your cycle, around ovulation.
Why do we switch seeds? The beginning of your menstrual cycle is the first day of your period (Day 1). From Day 1 until ovulation (typically around Day 14 IF you have a textbook 28 day cycle), the predominant hormone is estrogen, which helps build up the lining of your uterus (the endometrium) after your period. Flaxseeds and/or pumpkin seeds help to balance estrogen levels and are therefore used in this first half of the cycle.
From ovulation until your period starts is the second half of your cycle, in which progesterone is more predominant. This is why we switch to the progesterone-balancing seeds, sesame and/or sunflower seeds.
A typical cycle will look like this:
-Day 1-14 (follicular phase): 2 Tbsp (total) of freshly ground flaxseed (or whole pumpkin seeds) – estrogen balancing
-Day 15-28 (luteal phase): 2 Tbsp (total) of sesame or sunflower seeds – progesterone balancing
You can use a combination of the seeds (1Tbsp of each), or just stick to 2Tbsp of one kind in each category.
If your cycle is not 28 days, and/or you have no clue when you ovulate, then you will need to start charting your cycle (using markers such as cervical mucous +/- basal body temperature), in order to find out your particular pattern and whether it falls within the normal range. I like the Kindara App to help with tracking this, but there are many other apps out there, or you can you good old pen and paper charts too!
How Does It Work?
You might be asking yourself if taking these little seeds daily can really have an impact on your hormones. After all, if you go to your medical doctor to try and “balance hormones”, you will usually be recommended some form of birth control. This actually does not balance your hormones at all, but it suppresses your natural production of hormones in order to try and prevent the process of ovulation, fertilization, and make the uterus lining inhospitable to embryo implantation. Furthermore, the birth control pill sets you up for specific vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, as well as imbalances in your gut flora (the good bugs that help regulate your immune system). Therefore, if your goal is to balance hormones, the birth control pill is not your answer.
Although there are no studies of the seed protocol itself, we do know from studies of the individual seeds how they may be gently nudging our hormones in the right direction.
Most women tend to have estrogen dominance, too much of the hormone estradiol, which can manifest as fibroids, endometriosis, mood swings, hair loss, breast tenderness during PMS, and even an increased risk of estrogen-positive cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer. Flaxseeds are considered a “phytoestrogen”, but they don’t directly boost all estrogens as the name might lead you to think. They actually decrease the production of the more harmful estrogen form of estradiol, as well as shift the balance of estrogen metabolites (breakdown materials) from the more harmful 16-hydroxy-estrone towards the less harmful 2-hydroxy-estrone. What they are actually “boosting” is the more beneficial estrogen metabolites… Win-win! Ground flaxseeds have been shown to be helpful for premenstrual breast tenderness and to decrease estrogen-dependent cancer risk.
-> Pumpkin and Sesame Seeds
Similarly to flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds also have phytoestrogens which have shown potential in decreasing estrogen-dependent cancer risk, but they have not been studied as extensively as flaxseeds.
Zinc is high in both pumpkin and sesame seeds, and indirectly helps increase your production of progesterone. The corpus luteum (the “shell” that is left over in your ovaries from the egg that is released during ovulation) becomes the main producer of progesterone in the second half of your cycle, but only if you ovulate. Zinc increases progesterone production by stimulating the hormone FSH, which is needed for proper ovulation to occur.
-> Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are high in selenium, magnesium, Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, and also contain a decent amount of zinc. These nutrients are needed for proper progesterone production and hormone metabolism.
How To Get Started
If you are dealing with some female hormone imbalances and would like to get started with this dietary intervention, you can start at any time! Just make sure to find out what phase of your cycle, follicular (1st half) or luteal (2nd half) phase, you are in, and start consuming the seeds for that phase until it’s time to switch. As these seeds are high in fibre, make sure to have them with plenty of water so that you don’t get constipated. As well, some people experience bloating when they start eating these amounts of ground flaxseeds – if this is you, cut back and start small, working your way up, or try pumpkin seeds instead.
If your case is more complicated or you have irregular cycles, it might be worth it to get a proper evaluation. You may need an in-depth hormone assessment through bloodwork, salivary hormone testing, or dried urine testing (DUTCH test) to really find out what is going on. Naturopathic doctors have many tools to help you balance your hormones, including dietary and lifestyle changes, botanical medicines, nutritional supplementation, and acupuncture.
As always, I would love to help you get to the bottom of your hormone troubles so that you don’t have to fear that time of the month anymore. Make an appointment at my Brampton office to get started.
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Images from 123rf.com.
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Dr. Tamar Ferreira is a Naturopathic Doctor in Brampton, Ontario. Her areas of focus include digestive health, hormone balance, and skin conditions.