No period or irregular periods? Flax seed might help

There are multiple benefits to consuming flax seed, that I’ve discovered as I research the seeds used in seed cycling. 1) Fewer anovulatory cycles in normal cycling women, 2) longer luteal phase with higher progesterone/estradiol ratio, 3) reduced stress hormones and perception of stress, 4) a number of more general health benefits including improved lipid profile, reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased A1c in type II diabetics, and potentially cancer prevention. I will discuss the first three in this post – for an excellent review of the other health benefits, please see this article.

There are three major components in flax seed that are thought to have health benefits – the fiber (6% of dry weight), the lignan alpha-linoleic acid (20%), and the phytoestrogen precursor secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG, 1%). One can consume either whole (ground) flax seed or lignan or SDG extracts. If you’re trying to recover your period I would recommend ground flax as the relevant studies were mostly performed with that rather than extracts. For other health benefits, I would suggest looking more closely at the studies (in this review, for example) to determine whether they used extract or whole flax (many used specific extracts).

Flax seed and menstrual cycles

Hormone levels and menstrual cycle parameters in women consuming 10g flax seed per day were examined for the duration of three menstrual cycles (comparing with three menstrual cycles in the same women where no flax was consumed but diet remained otherwise the same). For each woman, the second and third cycles were examined.

There were two important findings. First, there were no anovulatory cycles (0/36 cycles in 18 women) in women consuming flax seed compared with three anovulatory cycles during the control phase (3/36 cycles in 18 women, anovulation occurred in three different women).

Second, luteal phase when consuming flax seed was 1.2 days longer than with no flax seed consumption. I loved that this paper actually graphed the change in luteal phase between the flax/no flax cycles rather than just reporting averages: 1 woman had a shorter LP by 1 day, five women had no change, one had half a day longer LP, five had a 1-day longer LP, two had a 1.5-day longer LP, and one each had 2, 2.5, 3.5, and 4.5 day longer LPs! Both of these results suggest that daily flax seed consumption might be beneficial for women trying to regulate periods, and those with short luteal phases (another tool to add to the short LP arsenal!)

When hormone levels were examined, there were no significant changes in any hormones: estradiol in the early or mid-follicular phase, or progesterone or estradiol during the luteal phase. Testosterone levels during the mid-follicular phase were about 10% higher, a significant difference. The researchers speculated this might affect the luteal phase length. There were also 25% higher progesterone to estradiol ratios during the luteal phase (non-significant 10% higher progesterone and ~15% lower estradiol combined to give a significantly higher P/E2 ratio under flax seed consumption). This could potentially explain the longer luteal phases.

flax seed and improved stress perception

Another set of studies seem to show positive effects of flax seed consumption on hormones associated with stress response, and this is where I think that flax seed might help those who are working toward recovering missing periods, but not there yet.

The first study I want to tell you about looked at stress markers in mice fed either a control diet, or one that contained a commonly used anti-depressant (imipramine), pomegranate peel extract or flax seed extract. After 50 days various hormones were measured – cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Flax seed extract and imipramine showed similar levels of decrease in each of these hormones, which is great for someone trying to recover from hypothalamic amenorrhea / no period, as each of those hormones help suppress the hypothalamus – decreasing levels will only help get the hypothalamus going again!

35 postmenopausal women consumed different varieties of flaxseed containing varied levels of two active components SDG and alpha-linoleic acid. Blood pressure was used as a marker of stress, and all three types of flax seed reduced blood pressure during a frustrating cognitive task, in comparison with the same task without flax seed consumption (the study was a crossover design so some women took the test with flax seed first and without second, for others the order was reversed so the reduction in blood pressure was not due to having taken the test before.) All three varieties reduced plasma cortisol as well, but the Linola 989 variety with the highest SDG showed the highest reduction.

flax seed recommendations

I started researching the effects of flax seed in the context of seed cycling. As I read the scientific literature I noted that there was not a single study that alternated seed types – all the medical literature I could find had people (or animals) taking one seed type consistently. I will present the evidence on the other seeds included in “seed cycling” shortly (pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds) but I have not found any evidence to suggest value in changing between seed types.

Studies show flax alone has the potential to reduce stress hormones, and have positive effects both on the follicular phase (including ovulation) and the luteal phase of a menstrual cycle. Based on the reduction in stress hormones and perceived stress, along with other health benefits and no adverse consequences, I see no reason not to add flax seed to your arsenal as you work to restore missing menstrual cycles or to potentially help with normalizing menstrual cycles that are wonky for other reasons. Instead of making yourself crazy trying to figure out what seeds to take when, as one has to do with “seed cycling”, simply eating ground flax seed every day (the other seeds could be added as you like) might be beneficial. Note that as with other supplements, it is unlikely that taking flax alone, without increasing food intake, reducing high intensity exercise, and reducing stress will be successful. Check out No Period. Now What? for evidence and recommendations on how to do all this.

This is the ground flax I use, from BJs . My mom started adding flax seed to the yogurt she had for lunch every day ages ago, I tried it and liked it, and started adding it too (along with chia seeds, ’cause I like the crunch).

I’d suggest 10g/d as a reasonable amount based on the study finding fewer anovulatory cycles and longer luteal phases. For other health benefits, again, please examine the specific literature to find the optimal form of flax to use and what dose.

Also, note that there have not been any detrimental effects found with flax seed so far for most people, but the recommendation is not to consume flax in large quantities while pregnant as studies in rats do show some negative effects (included in this review). I wouldn’t stress if you’re pregnant and have some, but probably best not to have daily.

 

 

 

 

Do you really ovulate “late”?

Some women, as they recover from hypothalamic amenorrhea (missing periods), will be worried that they are ovulating “late” in their cycle, maybe Cycle Day 21, 22… but then they get their period around the normal time, maybe CD 28-30.

In some cases, and this was true for me, the issue is the short luteal phase (the time between ovulation and when your period arrives) leading to a seemingly long follicular phase (time between period and ovulation).

When I tracked my ovulations and periods carefully I noticed that my ovulations were routinely 28-30 days apart, as expected. So it wasn’t that the ovulation was messed up, it was more that my period wasn’t aligning with the ovulation as in a normal cycle. A similar phenomenon was observed in a research study where women with short luteal phases were observed to have longer follicular phases (this was not the main focus of the study, but my observation from data reported in Table 2).

My theory is that to some degree, our period and then subsequent ovulation are actually hormonally separate events. The period comes because of a drop in progesterone, that is unrelated to the decrease in estrogen that primes the small increase in FSH to start the new follicle growing. So in a woman with a short luteal phase, the drop in progesterone occurs early, leading to an early period – but that does NOT drive the start of follicular growth, which waits for a few days and then begins, on its regular 28 day cycle.

I know this is confusing, so check out these diagrams. Here’s a normal cycle…the small increase in FSH at the beginning leads to growth of the egg-containing follicle. In the middle of the cycle, around CD12-13, LH spikes leading to ovulation around CD14. After ovulation, the follicular structure collapses into the “corpus luteum” which starts secreting progesterone by around CD16. When progesterone levels fall approximately 12 days later, the period starts, FSH increases, and the whole cycle begins again – with ovulation around CD14 and period around CD28.

Here’s my view of what is happening when one has a short luteal phase. Let’s imagine that the first period in this diagram was induced by Provera and then Clomid is used to start the follicular growth. So the follicular phase proceeds just as above – a small increase in FSH leads to growth of the egg-containing follicle, LH spikes around CD12-13, and ovulation happens on CD14. This is where things aren’t working quite right – the corpus luteum forms, but isn’t making enough progesterone. So the increase in progesterone is lower, and for a shorter amount of time. This leads to an early period – in this diagram, about a week early, for a 6 to 7 day luteal phase.

This leads to what I’m terming the “apparent cycle day” in the figure – menses have started, so ostensibly it’s CD1 again. However. The OTHER hormones involved in the cycle are not at CD1 levels yet. They are still at CD22, 23, 24 levels. The estrogen needs to drop further to instigate the increase in FSH to start the follicular growth… and THOSE hormones are not affected by the lack of proesterone. They continue along their merry way as if it’s CD 22-28, not caring that you’re bleeding already and *think* it’s CD1. So then you get to CD14 and think that ovulation should be happening… but it doesn’t. So you get frustrated (trust me, I know!!) But in reality, your other hormones are on their normal 28-30 day cycle, when when you get to where CD14 would have been if your period had come on time at CD28, that’s when you ovulate. Does that make sense? If not, feel free to drop a question in the comments!

To further illustrate this, here’s a table with my cycle data (this was after my second son was born in September 2008… my first postpartum ovulation was 7/29/2009 while I was still breastfeeding morning and night. I got my period just five days later on 8/3/09, for a four day luteal phase. This cycle isn’t a great example as the cycle is long as is common in initial postpartum or recovery cycles. However the next one (cycle #2) is a perfect example. After only a six-day luteal phase, I got my peiod on 9/15/09 – had it been a normal length LP (e.g., CD14 ovulation, CD28 period start), my period would have come on 9/21/09 instead. I then ovulated on 10/6/09, which based on when my period actually started was apparently CD22… but had my period come when it “should have”… the ovulation would have been CD15.

One anomalous cycle happens on cycle 10 – I had gotten pregnant the cycle before, but unfortunately had a miscarriage that was resolved after two D&Cs. After that I started to use progesterone suppositories to support my luteal phase, which leads to close to normal LPs and pretty close to CD14 ovulation. I did NOT use progesterone on cycles 15 or 16… leading to shorter luteal phase and apparent later ovulation!

You can see from this data set that there’s a fair bit of variability between cycles – compare the days between ovulation and you see that mostly they’re around ~28-30 days, but there are a few that are shorter, and a few that ar longer. I know that some women are like clockwork, but that is certainly not true for me!!

I hope this helps explain why a short luteal phase and longer apparently follicular phase are associated – again, feel free to ask any questions you may have – or please share if this has been your experience as well – or not!

xox Nico

P.S. Check out Chapter 19 in No Period. Now What? for a LOT more information on luteal phases, why they might be short, and what you can do about it!!