We all agree that hormonal acne is the worst acne, yes? Besides being a physical manifestation of PMS splashed across your face (cute!), this particular brand of breakout is stupid stubborn. Which, sadly, makes sense: Hormonal acne stems from an internal ~imbalance~, rendering external zit-zappers—e.g., acne patches, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, that ubiquitous orange bottle of Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash—all but useless. It’s basically the skincare version of “the call is coming from inside the house.”
So maybe that little bit of logic will make my latest experiment seem slightly less unhinged: In an attempt to clear my broken-out skin from the inside out, I started eating two tablespoons of raw seeds every morning, rotated in accordance with the phases of my menstrual cycle. And...my hormonal acne is gone.
Yes, really. Gone.
Before you LOL and click back to Instagram stalking, you should know that this isn’t some airy, Earth Mama thing that came to me in meditation. It’s science, people! Well, kind of. The practice is known as seed cycling (or seed syncing, depending on who you ask) and tons of ob-gyns, dermatologists, nutritionists, and functional medicine doctors endorse it as a natural way to help balance your hormones. And balanced hormones can lead to—you guessed it—balanced, clear, non-broken-out skin. Even when you’re PMSing.
My Before-and-After Results
Wait, WTF Is Seed Cycling?
“Seed cycling is thought to support the interplay between your estrogen and progesterone hormones,” says Omnia M. Samra-Latif Estafan, MD, an ob-gyn at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in New Jersey and a consultant for BioFemme. These two main reproductive hormones ebb and flow throughout the month: Estrogen spikes during your follicular phase (i.e., when you ovulate), and progesterone spikes during your luteal phase (i.e., when you menstruate). Those fluctuations are totally normal—not to mention necessary—but if your hormone levels are out of whack in any way, your hormonal spikes can get extreme and lead to fun stuff like cramps, mood swings, and, yup, pimples.
“In normal cycles, our hormones should be balanced, but hormones can be affected by things like stress, toxins, poor diet, digestive issues, and large amounts of coffee and alcohol,” says Dr. Estafan. I mean, that list pretty much sums up my life, and probably yours, too, so chances are your endocrine system could use some lovin’. Enter: cycling seeds—specifically, flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds.
How Can *Seeds* Affect Your Body?
According to Dr. Estafan, these seeds contain a type of fiber called lignan, which, when metabolized, is thought to have an effect on your hormones by either eliminating excess estrogen in your body or boosting estrogen levels in your body (which, BTW, your body is already pretty good at doing on its own, but if your hormones are out of whack, the seeds can theoretically help). The idea is to strategically use these seeds to calm intense hormonal shifts throughout your cycle, so you can see-saw your way back into balance, and, hopefully, mitigate any looming breakouts or PMS swings.
“Umm, why can’t I just eat normal foods with fiber?” I hear you skeptically ask. Although, yes, lignan is found in other fruits and veggies, you’d have to consume truly massive amounts just to reach the concentration found in a handful of sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, and flax seeds. To put it in perspective: You’d need to eat 53 cups of kale to get the same amount of lignan found in two tablespoons of flaxseed. L-O-L. Nope. But these intense concentrations are also what make seed cycling so compelling.
Still, even though many swear by it, it’s very, very important to note that the merits of seed cycling are based on one main scientific study plus a handful of inferences from semi-related studies. So although there isn’t any research that refutes the efficacy of seed cycling, there also isn’t enough indisputable evidence that proves seed cycling is some miracle cure, especially in relation to zits (womp). Unless, of course, you count my very non-scientific-but-nevertheless-compelling experiment, which, based on my before-and-after pics, I kinda do.
My Seedy Experiment
When I first heard about seed cycling six months ago, the whole concept seemed 1) ridiculous but also 2) easy and 3) cheap, so I bought all the organic seeds my pantry could hold and got my front-facing camera ready (I do love documenting a good before-and-after). Also, I was kinda desperate: My hormones were going through it, and crying for help via the pores along my cheeks, chin, and jawline.
I wasn’t expecting much, because seed cycling isn’t actually “a skincare thing.” It’s typically used as a tool to help regulate spotty periods and ease PMS. But as an endlessly curious acne sufferer, I had to wonder: The same hormone swings that cause PMS symptoms like cramps and fatigue cause hormonal breakouts, right? (Right, says Dr. Estafan, provided that you’re actually predisposed to acne. Some lucky uterus-bearers will never be served a side of blemish with their bloating.) Theoretically then, shouldn’t the same seeds be able to soothe my PMS zits? I set up an experiment to find out.
PHASE ONE: DAY 1 TO 14
I started on the first day of my period, or “day one” of the menstrual cycle, as the pros call it, by throwing one tablespoon of flaxseeds and one tablespoon of pumpkin seeds into my breakfast smoothie (freshly ground seeds are best for absorption, FYI). Why these two? Because “flaxseeds have been shown to have a weak estrogenic effect,” says Jolene Brighten, MD, author of Beyond The Pill, meaning they can help rev up your estrogen to balance out the acne-causing progesterone that’s the dominant hormone in your period at this point in your cycle. Pumpkin seeds, on the other hand, “are rich in essential fatty acids, which help regulate oil production and play an important part in skin health and acne management,” says Dr. Brighten. Not bad for seeds, eh?
I’ve always had a pretty involved morning routine—meditate, gua sha, commence extensive supplement regimen, blend smoothie—so adding seeds to the mix was easy.
It was so easy, in fact, that I kinda, sorta forgot about the experiment until day five, when I couldn’t help but notice that my face looked plump. Not in a rounded, double-chin way, but in a way where my skin seemed...thicker? Smoother? Bouncier, even? I thought it was my imagination, but all signs pointed to the seeds. “A diet rich in fatty acids has great anti-inflammatory effects”—combatting redness and swelling, for instance—“and can keep your skin hydrated,” says dermatologist Devika Icecreamwala, MD, of Icecreamwala Dermatology in San Francisco. Bonus: All four seeds used in this experiment are rich in fatty acids, so seed cycling is pretty much a permanent visit to skin hydration station.
PHASE TWO: DAY 15 TO 30
The midway point of this whole monthlong experiment. On day 15 of my cycle—i.e., the beginning of the follicular phase when estrogen soars—I swapped out the flax- and pumpkin seeds for sunflower seeds and sesame seeds, whose specific type of lignan fiber (called enterodiol) might help “boost progesterone levels and eliminate excess estrogen,” says Dr. Estafan. Basically, continuing to keep your hormones (and hopefully face) somewhat balanced.
Day 23 is when my skin noticeably deviated from its norm. By this point in my cycle, my cheeks and chin would usually be co-opted by painful, under-the-skin cysts announcing the impending arrival of my period. But this month? Nothing. Not. A. Damn. Thing. My skin was hydrated and glowing—thanks to those fatty acids—with nary a hormonal pimple in sight, besides a few holdovers from last month, plus a little scarring.
Still no zits, which was pretty shocking to me, especially considering how skeptical I was. But please note that my hyper-speed timeline isn’t typical; most seed syncers don’t see significant results for about two to three months. “I think within two cycles, you should see some improvement,” says Alisa Vitti, a functional nutritionist and the author of my personal bible, WomanCode. Since everyone’s body is different, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what that “improvement” might look for your face (or for the rest of your PMS symptoms). It could be skin as smooth and clear as Kendall Jenner’s post-Proactiv, or it could be one fewer pimple on your chin.
What You Need to Seed Cycle
- Phase 1: Flax seed, pumpkin seeds
- Phase 2: Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds
My Results After 6 Months
So, did I keep seed cycling? Um, YES. Between traveling for work and hectic mornings and lazy weekends, there have been stretches of time in the past six months when I’ve skipped the seeds, and my skin always shows it. Seriously. It’s actually the best reminder: If I forget my morning flax, an angry red zit (or three) pops up within a day or two to let me know. As soon as I get back to those sweet, sweet seeds, it leaves me alone.
Seed cycling isn’t an end-all-be-all cure for hormonal acne though. "I think the biggest value is that it is often the first experience that a woman can have that shows if you change your food, you can improve your period," says Vitti. "Your diet is a holistic experience—you have to take the rest of it into consideration." By that, she means you can’t just seed cycle while subsisting on French fries and rosé and expect to see long-term results. Hormone health is a ~lifelong journey~.
And “keep in mind that seed cycling doesn’t work like a pharmaceutical,” says Dr. Brighten. “We can’t expect to start seeds one day and see immediate results.” All I can say is my body is apparently hella sensitive, and this is one instance where that sensitivity was actually a good thing.
EXCITED?! Wait—Read This Before Starting
Whenever I tell someone new how seed cycling has legit changed my skin, I am bombarded with all the questions: How do I do it? What do I do if my period is irregular? What if I’m on birth control? Are there any weird side effects? AHHH! Since I am but a mere skincare enthusiast and not a doctor, here’s everything I’ve gathered from the pros, my research, and life:
How to seed cycle, in a
nut seed shell:
Standard seed cycling protocol says to consume one tablespoon each of flax- and pumpkin seeds every day during the luteal phase (beginning on day one of your period). Switch to sunflower and sesame seeds during the follicular phase (usually, day 15). Then switch back to flax- and pumpkin when your period starts again, ad infinitum.
"What if I have weird periods though?!"
If your period is irregular—or you don’t currently get your period—just start whenever/wherever you want, advises Vitti. Rotate the two seed groups (flax and pumpkin first, then sesame and sunflower) every 14 days, and your body will adjust. And yes, you can still seed cycle on hormonal birth control. Think of it as "biohacking," the hormone expert says. "You’re using micro- and macro-nutrient therapy to enhance the performance of your endocrine system."
"What if I have some other uniquely difficult body thing?!"
Alas, seed cycling isn’t the move for everyone. "I would only recommend it for people with garden-variety PMS and not for those with more serious symptoms," Vitti says. Seeds, after all, are just seeds: Their supposed hormone-boosting and hormone-eliminating benefits, in general, are pretty mild and will only have a noticeable impact on minor imbalances. Stuff like debilitating cramps or PCOS require a visit to the ob-gyn. The practice is also not great for anyone with a history of diverticulitis, gallbladder issues, or a "fatty liver" from PCOS, she says.
"What if I think this is all BS?!"