Hormones may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to your health—unless you’ve spent any time on TikTok recently. If your body’s moderating chemicals aren’t being churned out at exactly the right times and quantities, the app’s content creators claim, a cascade of symptoms including sluggishness, acne, headaches, and weight gain can ensue. But not to worry, they say: a “hormone balancing” regimen, based on eating certain foods and doing the right exercises at prescribed times, will fix that.
This trend has two of the bright red flags of pseudoscience: It sounds too good to be true, and it’s built from the rejiggered pieces of valid concepts. Hormonal abnormalities are legitimate medical concerns, and there are various diagnosable disorders that require treatment or lifestyle management. But these are not the conditions that digital wellness messengers are focused on. Their concern is a broader, vaguer sense of “imbalance,” which some content creators claim might not show up in standard endocrine testing.
Here’s what to know about the so-called hormone balancing trend.
There’s no proof that it works
The concept of hormone balancing is fairly new to platforms like TikTok and Instagram, but it’s been around for a long time. Norah MacKendrick, a sociologist at Rutgers University, has spent 20 years analyzing how hormone balancing has infiltrated popular culture. In 2022, she published a study analyzing 25 books about hormone balancing written by medical doctors between 2003 and 2021. She found almost no legitimate medical support for the concept—but the authors “ all sold special supplements,” she says.
“From what I could tell,” she says, “there was never a clear clinical definition in any of these books—and I’m not seeing it in these social media spaces, either.” There’s a clear disconnect between the guidelines and measurements clinicians use to diagnose endocrine disorders and the nonexistent metrics of “hormone balancing.” Instead, MacKendrick says, “How you feel becomes the indicator of hormone imbalance. And it’s kind of the perfect culprit, because hormones are relatively invisible.” Online, few wellness posters even name specific hormones, or what metric they’re “balancing” them against.
This content typically targets women
Hormone balancing is often presented more as a self-help or entrepreneurial undertaking than a medical one. And it’s almost always targeted at women, exploiting age-old beliefs about gender and psychological and physical stability. Though the bodies of women and men are both equally governed by hormones across many body systems, “female bodies are generally seen to be more hormonal than male bodies,” MacKendrick says. What she found to be most “pernicious” in her research, she says, is that “if you dug deep into what they were saying, hormone balance was really just a stand-in for thinness and usefulness.” This type of social media content is often paired with before and after photos, with captions like “How I rebalanced my hormones to lose 40 pounds in 6 months.”
Read More: What the Ozempic Obsession Misses About Food and Health
Some people struggling to lose weight may be hampered by a true hormonal issue, like hypothyroidism, in which certain hormones are underproduced, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a relatively common hormone disorder among women. But these and other health conditions are definable and can’t be diagnosed or treated exclusively at home, and they often pose real health risks beyond weight gain.
It’s related to “cycle syncing”
One of the reasons why hormone balancing lacks a clear definition is because levels of various hormones shift and change naturally within the body. Menstruation is associated with lots of these shifts in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
It’s no surprise, then, that TikTokers who discuss hormones often focus on something they call “cycle syncing,” or making small lifestyle changes multiple times a month in coordination with the four phases of your menstrual cycle: the follicular phase, ovulation (when an egg is released into the uterus), the luteal phase, and menstruation. In TikTok’s wellness world, this means four different (and complicated) diet and exercise routines throughout the month to “help” production and regulation of these hormones.
Influencers often supply detailed lists of what to eat during each phase. Some tout root veggies, buckwheat, and dark-colored berries for menstruation; nightshades, tropical fruits, and turmeric for ovulation; and brown rice, chickpeas, and walnuts for the luteal phase.
But these recommendations aren’t backed by science. “I’m not familiar with data that suggest that if you eat X food today, you will have Y outcome in your hormones,” says Anna Stanhewicz, an assistant professor of human physiology at the University of Iowa. Some of these suggested diets, she says, instruct people to “eat less protein, because protein is the building block of a hormone. And yes, that’s true. But if you eat a chicken breast, you’re not going to suddenly start producing more estrogen.” What these suggested diet plans miss is that the body usually does a great job of regulating hormones all by itself. If you have normal menstrual cycles, says Stanhewicz, any healthy diet will provide your body with all the nutrition it needs to do its best work—at any time of the month.
Read More: Magnesium Supplements Are a Buzzy New Sleep and Anxiety Aid. Do They Work?
These cycle-syncing routines also have strict guidelines when it comes to fitness. High-intensity cardio workouts should be confined to the ovulation phase, TikTok wellness influencers often claim, and during the menstrual phase, people should stick to low-impact activities like stretching and walking. While a small amount of research looks into how exercise and cyclic hormonal changes in women influence one another, the effects are usually slight and inconclusive, says Stanhewicz, and results often only look at women with extremely regular and predictable cycles—something that many people who menstruate don’t have.
“There’s probably no wholesale effect of the menstrual cycle phase on performance,” she says, but there’s a lot of merit to taking “an individualized approach.” If you usually feel weak or tired during one part of your cycle, it’s worth taking into consideration when planning workouts. “But if your overall goal is fitness, wellness, weight loss, gains in strength… there’s really no hacking the system,” says Stanhewicz. In other words: any type of exercise is good for you. Don’t overcomplicate it.
Playing around with some hormone-balancing suggestions is unlikely to hurt you, though you should take into account the ways that any diet and exercise plan could affect other medical conditions you might have—and your mental health, says MacKendrick. Anyone interested should “look carefully at what you’re being asked to do to bring your body ‘back into balance,’ and whether that’s causing more stress and hardship than what you were feeling before you started adopting these programs and changes.”
More Must-Reads From TIME