Cara O. Frank, L.OM.
** In the early ’70s, Frances Moore Lappé [i]wrote the groundbreaking book Diet for a Small Planet. I still have my mother’s frayed, dog-eared copy. In the book, Ms. Lappé championed the idea that high-quality vegetarian protein could be maximized by strategically combining different foods: grains and beans, dairy and grains, etc. These combinations were called protein compliments.
Early in her work, she advocated combining beans and grains or dairy and grains at every meal to maximize the usable protein. My mother was obsessed with this. Every meal was maxed out with ma crazy math of different vegetarian foods. Some of it was even delicious.
Years after laboriously combining plant-based proteins, we learned that these foods could be eaten at different meals throughout the day and even throughout the week. We learned that the body could utilize all the protein it needed from a range of vegetarian foods without all the fuss of combining at the same time.
Currently, there is a trend within the natural fertility community to recommend seed cycling as a way to balance reproductive hormones. This method recommends eating various seeds, including flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower, at different times during a woman’s menstrual cycle to balance reproductive hormones.
Most of the online sources that I reviewed recommend eating one tablespoon each of ground flax seeds and pumpkin seeds during the follicular phase (days 1-14) of a woman’s menstrual cycle and then switching to 1 tablespoon of ground sesame seeds and sunflower seeds for the luteal phase (days 15-28). In my acupuncture practice, I also advocate eating seeds, not only to enhance fertility but for all people because they are so nutritious.
Why are Eating Seeds Helpful?
Seeds are filled with vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, and deliciousness. They also contain lignans, which are plant compounds that exert a weak hormonal activity, which helps reduce the risk of hormonally driven cancers, as well as lower heart disease. Concerning fertility: lignans can help block “bad” estrogens and help to promote “good” estrogen, thus supporting the hormonal balance needed to conceive. There is a large bank of knowledge on sesame and flax seeds. They are especially abundant sources of lignans, which help to both boost and balance estrogen in the body. For mild hormonal imbalances, eating a range of seeds may help to boost and balance hormones. Seed cycling likely won’t help complex causes of infertility, such as blocked ovarian tubes and advanced endometriosis.
- Flax seeds can be considered a superfood. They are one of the richest sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). They have lignans that balance estrogen, whether there is an excess (or dominance) or a deficiency. They may even help to prevent estrogen-driven cancers. They moisturize the body and are useful to treat for dry skin, dry eyes. Flax seeds and oil can be used to ease hot flashes. They can also help lower blood pressure[ii]
- Sesame seeds are one of the worlds’ most ancient foods. Used as food and oil, they are rich in calcium, vitamin E, healthy fats as well as lignans similar to flax. They are relatively high in copper, which is a mineral that acts as a precursor to estrogen[iii].
- Sunflower seeds are also rich sources of Vitamin E, as well as copper. They are also a rich source of selenium, which is needed to support thyroid health. For more on this topic, see my blog on Brazil nuts.
- Pumpkin seeds, along with sunflower, are rich sources of Zinc. Zinc acts as a precursor to progesterone, which is the dominant hormone during the luteal, or second phase of the menstrual cycle. Further, the evidence shows that it helps to reduce estrogen dominance while increasing progesterone.
Beyond anecdotal reports, I searched for scientific evidence demonstrating the efficacy of seed cycling and was unable to find trustworthy sources that support this method. I’d like to weigh in with my opinions:
My background with Diet for a Small Planet informs my perspective on seed cycling. Seeds are nutrient-dense foods that can help to boost and balance hormones. I recommend that my patients eat seeds to improve fertility and health. I want everyone to eat better, and I also feel that food should be joyous and delicious. I am a fan!
The problem for me is how it is staged. If I had “invented” this method, I would recommend that flax and sesame, be eaten during the first half of the menstrual cycle, when we need estrogen support to nourish the follicle and build the endometrium. I’d then recommend that pumpkin and sunflower seeds be eaten in the second half of the cycle to boost progesterone levels.
I am unsure that the seed cycling method needs to be overthought. My fertility patients are already preoccupied with recording basal body temperatures, taking hormones, herbs, and more. Systems such as seed cycling often result in patients feeling anxious if they eat the “wrong” seed at the wrong time.
I feel strongly that all seeds can be eaten by the handful or incorporated into other foods. For the women who claim that their menstrual cycles improved and fertility was restored: was it because they ate a specific seed on a particular day, or was it because they improved their nutrition by because they ate well? In my practice, I have seen time and time again, that when fed nutrient-dense foods, the body is enlivened. I believe that we can trust our bodies to know what to do with the multiple constituents contained in nuts and that it needn’t be so time-specific.
So, what does Chinese Medicine have to say about these seeds?
Interestingly, pumpkin, flax, and sesame seeds are used medicinally. They are cited in our Materia Medica, but you won’t typically find them in fertility formulas.
- The Chinese name for flax is yà má zĭ. They have a sweet and bland flavor, and they enter the lung, liver, and large intestine channels. Their therapeutic actions are to moisten dryness of the skin, hair, and even to moisten dry stool. (this is similar to how we think of them in the West since they can be eaten as a source of fiber to treat constipation.)
- In Chinese Medicine, we use black sesame seeds medicinally, while white sesame seeds are used for culinary purposes. The Chinese name is hēi zhī ma or hú má rén. They have a sweet flavor and enter the Liver, Kidney, and Large Intestine channels. Their therapeutic actions include blackening the hair moisten the skin, and lubricate the intestines. (And no, if you’re blond, you won’t become a brunette! There’s a cultural imperative since almost all Chinese have black and brown hair). They are grouped with blood tonics and are considered to be deeply nourishing. Symptoms include blurred vision, dizziness, fatigue, and dryness. We also use them for insufficient lactation.
- Sunflower seeds, xiàng rì kuí zǐ. are sweet and neutral and are used as a folk remedy for dysentery and to expel pus. Mostly, sunflower seeds are used for food and oil.
- Pumpkin Seeds, nán guā zĭ are grouped with herbs that expel parasites, and the whole seeds, including the husk, is used. Other actions include them as a remedy for insufficient lactation.
Seed Cycling the Chinese Way:
In Chinese herbology, we use herbal formulas made from seeds to support fertility. We like the idea of using seeds to generate “seeds.” In my practice, if I am treating a woman with diminished ovarian reserve or a man with low sperm count, I will always include medicinal seed/herbs.
Seeds are filled with therapeutic qualities. Some, such as schizandra, help preserve the Jing or Essence. Some, such as goji berries and black sesame seeds, nourish Yin and Blood. Others, such as walnuts, and Cuscuta seeds nourish the Yang.
One of my favorite formulas is called Wǔ Zǐ Yǎn Zōng Wán Five-Seed Progeny Pill. It’s also often called Five Seeds for Nourishing One’s Ancestors.
In Chinese Medicine, when we are treating fertility, we are always concerned about a person’s Essence; the deep energy reserves of a healthy constitution. Using acupuncture, Chinese herbal formulas, diet, and relaxation, we help to restore energy that’s depleted. Some people are cooler, so we use warming herbs. Some are too warm, so we use cooling herbs. Wǔ Zǐ Yǎn Zōng Wán is right in the middle- neither too warm nor excessively cooling. It’s well-tolerated and safe if taken over long periods.
Historically indicated for male factor infertility, I find it very helpful for diminished ovarian reserve and low AMH levels. Other indications include weakness and fatigue, sexual dysfunction, impotence, premature ejaculation, Low sperm count, Frequent or Dribbling urine. Further, 3 of the ingredients benefit the eyes, making it helpful for age-related vision problems.
The earliest text I could find listing the formula is from 1550 (Ming Dynasty)
Numerous Miraculous Prescriptions for Health Cultivation (Shè Shēng Zhòng Miào Fāng, 摄生众妙方) by Zhāng Shíchè.
Five-Seed Progeny Pill
wǔ zǐ yǎn zōng wán
|菟丝子 tù sī zǐ Cuscutae Semen|
|枸杞子 gŏu qǐ zǐ Lycii Fructus|
|覆盆子 fù pén zǐ Rubi Fructus|
|车前子 chē qián zǐ Plantaginis Semen|
|五味子 wǔ wèi zǐ Schisandrae Fructus|
The actions of the formula are to nourish Essence, tonify Blood, benefit Kidney Qi and moisten the eyes.
Kidney deficiency of Qi, Yang, and Jing causing general weakness, sexual dysfunction, impotence, premature ejaculation, male infertility, frequent urination, dribbling of urine, lumbar pain or weakness, and depression; female infertility due to Yang and Jing deficiency
A 39-year-old woman seeks treatment for infertility. Her history reveals that she has blocked fallopian tubes due to endometriosis. After a year of treatment, involving a combination of acupuncture, abdominal massage, and Chinese herbs used internally as well as topical compresses and administered as enemas, a follow-up test showed that her tubes were open. The next complication was that her FSH was elevated, and she was diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve.
For the first year, the patient’s herbal formulas focused on strong moving and opening strategies. With the new information, I reevaluated the herbal strategy to focus on improving the quality of her follicles. Within two months, her blood work showed that her FSH numbers were reasonable at 7/3, and her Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) had increased from .4 to 1.2, a significant improvement in a short time. She went on to conceive naturally.
Her formula was based on modified
Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, Six Flavor Rehmannia Pill modified with Dang Gui/Angelicae Sinensis, Bai Shao/Paeoniae rx. Alba, Yin Yang Huo/Epimedii hb, Bu Gu Zhi /Psoralea, Tu si zi/Cuscutae sm., Gou Qi Zi/Lycii fr, Che Qian Zi/Plantaginis sm., Wu Wei Zi/Schisandrae fr., Yi Mu Cao/Leonuri hb. (Liquid), Xiang Fu/Cyperi rh. Jing Jie/Schizonepetae hb.
She’s now entering her second trimester!
, Sibylle Abarzua , Mareike Chrobak , Thomas Vrekoussis , Tobias Weissenbacher , Christina Kuhn , Sandra Schulze , Markus S. Kupka , Klaus Friese , Volker Briese , Birgit Piechulla , Antonis Makrigiannakis , Udo Jeschke & Darius DianEffects of Phytoestrogen Extracts Isolated from Pumpkin Seeds on Estradiol Production and ER/PR Expression in Breast Cancer and Trophoblast Tumor Cells,
[ii] Rodriguez-Leyva D1, Weighell W, Edel AL, LaVallee R, Dibrov E, Pinneker R, Maddaford TG, Ramjiawan B, Aliani M, Guzman R, Pierce GN. Potent antihypertensive action of dietary flaxseed in hypertensive patients
About Cara Frank, L.OM.
Cara Frank, L.OM., was raised in a health food store in Brooklyn, NY. When she was 8, she cartwheeled 5 miles from Greenwich Village through Soho and Chinatown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. For over nearly 40 years, she has had the same crazy passion for Chinese medicine.
At 17, she had her first acupuncture treatment. At 20, she enrolled in acupuncture school. In 1998 she went to China to study where she fell deeply in love with Chinese herbs. Since then, she has devoted her life to studying and teaching the topic.
Cara is the founder of Six Fishes Healing Arts and Six Fishes Neighborhood Acupuncture, both in Philadelphia, where she maintains a busy acupuncture practice and acts as the head fish of two warm and lively offices. She is also the president of China Herb Company. You can read her full bio or schedule an appointment.