Current research suggests strategic consumption of certain seeds may help in treating hormonal conditions that are unique to women, like polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Courtesy of Maddi Bazzocco
Yet another wellness trend has emerged in the world of female health. As an anecdote to hormonal imbalances and the many ways in which they manifest, young women across the internet are eating, by the spoonful, common types of edible seeds at different phases throughout the menstrual cycle. Some claim that this natural approach to hormone health helps them control highly-symptomatic periods, while others swear it’s the elixir that healed their cystic acne. Aside from subjective evidence, on what scientific grounds do proponents of seed cycling stand? Research published in the March 2023 issue of Food Science & Nutrition suggests there may be some benefit to reap here.
A team of scientists from Government College University in Faisalabad, Pakistan, recruited 90 women from the tertiary care unit in the Department of Gynecology to test the effect of seed cycling on polycystic ovarian syndrome. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal disorder in women of reproductive age, that is, in women between the ages of 15 and 40. Hormones are chemical substances that humans and animals secrete directly into their bloodstreams.
As it circulates the body, a hormone signals bits in one region to target the function of cells, tissues and organs in other areas. In other words, hormones play a big role in regulating a range of biological processes and outcomes such as metabolism, behaviour and each phase of the menstrual cycle. Hormone imbalances occur when there is too much or too little of a hormone in your blood. In women, a high level of androgens, or hormones like testosterone that maintain male physical characteristics, cause symptoms of PCOS: acne, male-pattern balding, excessive hair growth on the face and body, the growth of small fluid-filled sacs (cysts) on the ovaries, irregular periods and infertility.
As the management of PCOS depends on healthy lifestyle habits, the research team first instructed their study participants to walk routinely for 40 to 60 minutes, drink 10 to 12 glasses of water daily and avoid junk food, fatty meals and bakery items. They then divided the participants into three groups.
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Group one was a control group. A control group in any given scientific experiment undergoes little to no treatment and thereby provides the standard by which the efficacy of study findings is measured.
Group two was an experimental treatment group wherein individuals took 500 mg of Metformin for 90 days while also being on a portion-control diet. According to Cambridge Dictionary, portion control is “the process of making sure that the amount of food you eat for each meal is not too large, especially when you are trying to lose weight.”
Group three was also an experimental group that portion controlled and ate pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds in the follicular and luteal phases of the menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle has four main phases: 1) menstruation, 2) the follicular phase, 3) ovulation and 4) the luteal phase.
As stated on the Better Health Channel website, “the follicular phase starts on the first day of your period and lasts for 13 to 14 days [wherein] the brain releases a hormone to stimulate the production of follicles on the surface of an ovary […] Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg.”
After an ovary releases a mature egg into the uterus through a fallopian tube, the uterus lining will thicken with the release of the sex hormone progesterone, in preparation for pregnancy during the fourth and final luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. If you don’t get pregnant, the corpus luteum, a temporary structure in the ovaries that produces progesterone, will disappear out of non-necessity, causing your sponged-up uterus lining to shed (menstruation). The luteal phase can last up to 16 days.
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During the 14 days of the follicular phase, the study participants first consumed pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds, around one to two tablespoons of each in tandem. Second, they consumed a combination of sunflower seeds and sesame seeds in the same amount for 14 days of the luteal phase. Each type of seed has essential minerals, vitamins, polyphenols and healthy fats that speak to various concerns associated with PCOS. Pumpkin seeds have unsaturated fatty acids that help control insulin and cholesterol levels. Flaxseed has high concentrations of lignans—a fibre-rich compound that acts like estrogen (female sex hormone) in the body. Sunflower seeds contain zinc which combats hair loss, hirsutism and premenstrual syndrome. Sesame seeds offer similar benefits along with potential anti-inflammatory properties.
In comparing the pre and post-study hormone assay test results of participants, the researchers found that over the 12-week trial, abnormal PCOS-induced increases in the follicle-stimulating hormone had decreased by nearly four per cent with the aid of both portion control and seed cycling in the treatment group number three. More than in the metformin treatment group two, elevated levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) also decreased by up to two per cent in treatment group three. LH promotes ovulation.
While the authors of the study admit that “further studies have to be done to explore the effect of seed cycling on PCOS for its clinical application,” seed cycling, when incorporated into a healthy lifestyle centred on exercise and portion control dieting, can be a valuable practice to those who are interested in do-it-yourself health.
As the worldwide use of seeds grows, however, it’s important to consider that hypersensitivity to especially sesame also rises. Learn more about common seed allergies and cross-reactivity between seeds and other foods through a review of the literature published in the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.