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Seed cycling to boost fertility: Can eating seeds really help balance your hormones?

Experts discuss the supposed benefits of seed cycling for fertility, PMS and more.

If you're trying to get pregnant, you've likely come across the practice of seed cycling, which involves eating specific seeds in the hopes of boosting fertility.

Of course, the irresistibly salty crunch of sunflower or pumpkin seeds makes them great snacks. But could those seeds actually do more for your health or even help balance hormone levels?

While seeds may be nutritious and tasty, experts are skeptical that seed cycling can produce real results. Here's what you should know before you try it — and why you might want to go slow when adding seeds to your diet.

What is seed cycling?

The basic premise of seed cycling is that eating certain types of ground seeds (pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds) every day at different points in your menstrual cycle can affect hormone levels. And seed cycling proponents claim the practice may increase fertility and ease PMS symptoms.

"The theory — emphasis on the word theory — of seed cycling is that compounds called lignans can stimulate estrogen activity," Whitney Linsenmeyer, a registered dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor at Saint Louis University, told TODAY.

Lignans are a set of compounds found in seeds (especially flax seeds) that can have anti-inflammatory properties, TODAY explained previously. And there is some limited research, like this 2011 study in mice, that suggests lignans can interact with estrogen and even produce estrogen-like effects.

Other components in seeds, primarily fatty acids, "can serve as precursors to steroid hormones, potentially, or could impact inflammation," Dr. Emily Jungheim, chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Northwestern Medicine, told TODAY.

It's "possible" that eating more fatty acids could affect hormone levels and "create a more favorable environment for hormone signaling," she said. There are few studies suggesting that eating sesame seeds and flax seeds can affect hormone levels in women.

But there are no randomized controlled trials on seed cycling specifically, Jungheim said. And infertility is more likely to be caused by other underlying health issues that can't be solved with seeds, she added.

Does seed cycling improve fertility?

"The general idea that nutrition can impact your fertility is absolutely valid," said Linsenmeyer, who is also an assistant professor at Saint Louis University. And there is some evidence that certain dietary factors (like unsaturated fats, whole grains, fish and vegetables) as well as being underweight or having obesity can make a difference.

"But there is no evidence that this specific practice — seed cycling — can impact fertility in any clinically significant way," she said.

“In terms of actually making a clinically significant impact on hormonal levels, there’s just no science there to support that,” Linsenmeyer said.

The truth is, “if somebody’s struggling with infertility, usually there’s some major thing that needs to be addressed,” Jungheim said. It might be that someone isn’t ovulating, that there’s an underlying health condition (like thyroid disease) making it more challenging to get pregnant or that their partner’s sperm count is too low, for instance.

But, if issues like those are causing fertility problems, eating a bunch of seeds isn’t likely to help. "There's nothing I can think of physiologically or scientifically that would make it biologically feasible that eating a specific type of seed in one portion of the cycle would make you ovulate," Jungheim said.

There may be other benefits to eating seeds, of course

"Seeds are very nutritious," Linsenmeyer said. "So, the bottom line is yes — if you want to incorporate more seeds in your diet, go for it."

They can be a great source of fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids, she said.

But if you're adding a lot of seeds to your diet at once, you may experience some gastrointestinal changes as your body adjusts to having more fiber. "Frankly, I would expect to see changes in bowel movements that might be just, like, startling to people," Linsenmeyer said. "The insoluble fiber content adds a lot of bulk to the stool." 

You might also notice yourself feeling fuller sooner or not feeling as hungry when it comes time for your next meal due to the high fat content in seeds, she said.

All of that is why Linsenmeyer recommends people who are interested in adding more seeds to their diet do so gradually over the course of a week or two — and be sure to drink plenty of water.

Before you try seed cycling to boost fertility...

First, remember that it can take a while to get pregnant — and that is generally normal. "If you're younger than 35, we generally recommend trying for a year," Jungheim said, noting that over-the-counter ovulation prediction kits make it easier to know when you're most fertile. For those over 35, she recommends checking in after six months.

But if you're not having periods for three months in a row, that's a sign that you may not be ovulating normally, Jungheim said, and you should talk with your doctor. Or, if you know you have a history of fibroids, endometriosis, PCOS or other issues that can affect fertility, it makes sense to check in with your doctor earlier on in the process, she said.

"I would encourage folks to get at least a diagnostic workup before turning to seed cycling," Jungheim said. While treatments are not always covered by insurance, those initial tests usually are, she added. Early testing can screen for underlying (generally treatable) issues, like thyroid disease, and your diagnosis may be delayed if you're spending time with seed cycling instead of talking to your doctor.

And recognize that there may also be emotional costs to pinning your hopes on something like seed cycling, Linsenmeyer added. "To me, the risk is getting somebody's hopes up when there is no science to support the practice."