Seed cycling for female athletes

The practice could help improve hormonal health.

Studies show that menstrual problems are more common in athletic women compared to the rest of the population, and they're a red flag when trying to conceive. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists considers a normal period as a vital sign for your health, says Nicole Jardim, a women’s health and functional nutrition coach based in New York City, who specializes in hormonal health. If it comes too frequently (shorter than 24 days), too infrequently (more than 38 days), or not at all (a condition called amenorrhea), you’re at risk for having low bone mineral density, more prone to stress fractures during exercise, as well as other problems that come from low estrogen levels.

That’s where a concept called seed cycling comes in. “It’s a technique that helps the body naturally rebalance the female sex hormones,” explains Jardim. You consume two types of seeds during the first half of your cycle and two different types in the second half. "Many women are lacking in the high quality essential fatty acids that help support the menstrual cycle, which can be found naturally in raw seeds," says Christiane Northrup, MD, the Portland, Maine-based author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom.

While the protocol can differ slightly depending on the practitioner, the below is what Jardim recommends for her clients. Consume one tablespoon of each seed per day. Timing (morning or night) doesn't matter, but you can add them to smoothies, or use them as a topping for yogurt, oatmeal, salads, or soups. Pro tip: Grind them up in a spice or coffee grinder and store in the fridge to keep them fresh longer.

Try it for at least three months, suggests Jardim, and it’s likely you’ll notice an effect in as little as one to two months. While further research is still needed, there is data to show how some of these individual seeds affect your period, particularly flax.

Plus, given these are common seeds, they’re safe to add to your diet. "I'm a huge proponent of using food to counteract what ails you," says Jame Heskett, MD, founder and medical director of The Well Path Clinic in New York City. That said, it’s smart to talk to your doctor to rule out any underlying medical causes of menstrual problems.

Day 1 to 14(Day 1 is the beginning of your period, 14 is ovulation. If you don't get your period, Jardim suggests starting on a day you can remember, such as the new moon.)

Flax seeds

Packed with compounds called phytoestrogens, these seeds help balance estrogen levels (which can be high during this part of your cycle), says Jardim. They also are rich in fiber, which can help reduce constipation. “When estrogen is processed by the liver, it’s transported to your bowels to be removed. If constipated, these estrogen metabolites can recirculate into the bloodstream and cause problems,” she explains.

Pumpkin seeds

They contain high levels of magnesium and zinc, two nutrients needed for an optimal cycle and ones that athletes often lack. The latter helps progesterone levels rise, which is important during this phase, notes Jardim.

Days 15 to 28

Sunflower seeds

Selenium is "a mineral and antioxidant that is critical for the development of ovarian follicles,” says Jardim. Incorporating sunflower seeds into your diet during the second phase could help support the liver in its detoxification process and possibly ease cramps, she adds.

Sesame seeds

Packed with minerals that support bone health (calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium), sesame seeds can also help improve estrogen levels, says Jardim. These seeds are also a good source of zinc, which further helps with progesterone production and can aid in keeping PMS symptoms at bay.