Over the course of your menstrual cycle, it’s completely normal and natural that changes take place in your breast tissue. This is your body preparing for the possibility that you’ll conceive.
Many breast problems are little more than an irritating interlude in your cycle. Sometimes, though, they cause excessive soreness, lumpiness, and pain; and sometimes they may not be related to your menstrual cycle at all. The following are some of the most common breast problems people treat in the clinics. Although there’s often a simple explanation for changes, check your breasts regularly for them.
Fibrocystic Breast Disease
This condition is the most common cause of lumpy, sore breasts in women aged between 30 and 50. It’s completely benign, and its symptoms, which tend to be worse before your period, include swollen, tender breasts, and/or one or more lumps.
It’s thought that fibrocystic breast changes are linked to the monthly hormonal roller coaster that your body goes through. Each month, as your body prepares for a possible pregnancy, your breasts ready themselves to produce milk. This response to hormonal triggers in your cycle may e responsible for the condition. You may be more likely to have fibrocystic breast disease if other women in your family have had it.
Diagnosing fibrocystic breast disease
Physical examination A doctor will usually diagnose fibrocystic breasts by feeling the lumpy areas in your breast(s), often close to your armpits. Unlike cancerous breast lumps, fibrocystic breast lumps tend to be mobile, often feel rounded, have smooth borders, and are rubbery or somewhat changeable in shape.
Mammogram If your doctor is unsure following a physical examination, he or she may recommend a mammogram. However, if you have entered menopause or are on HRT you’re likely to have thicker than normal breast tissue, which often makes a mammogram difficult to interpret.
Ultrasound and biopsy Although an ultrasound breast scan can be expensive, it often provides a more reliable diagnosis of the state of your breast tissue than a mammogram. If after an ultrasound your doctor is still in any doubt as to whether or not the lumps are malignant, ask to be examined by a specialist. Although uncomfortable, a needle biopsy (n which tissue from the lump is extracted and examined in a lab) may be the most reliable diagnostic test.
Conventional Treatments for All Breast Pain
Medication For all types of breast pain and for breast lumps, the only non-surgical treatment your doctor can offer you is medication that tries to control your hormones or offer pain relief. For example, the drug bromocriptine works by lowering the levels of prolactin (the hormone that stimulates breast tissue and milk production), which will ease pain, while the contraceptive pill artificially alters the cycle of your hormones to gie you better hormonal balance. The drugs danazol and tamoxifen are both anti-estrogens that suppress the menstrual cycle to relieve breast pain, while synthetic forms of gonadatrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH) may be given as a nasal spray or injection to put the bodyinto a temporary state of menopause, relieving pain. While all this seems good on the surface, hormone-suppression comes with side-effects. In the case of breast-pain medication, these range from nausea, dizziness, and mood swings to thrombosis, depression, and weight gain. Also, taking tamoxifen is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.
“Natural” progesterone cream One common “treatment” for fibrocystic and painful breasts is progesterone cream. Some women have rubbed the cream into their breasts at a given point in their cycle. The theory is that the fat cells in the breast tissue absorb the progesterone to equalize estrogen dominance and reduce pain. Fibrocysts usually disappear after applying the cream for two or three cycles. However, be aware that the word “natural” in this context does not mean “directly from nature”, it means “the same as in nature” – only artificially produced. “Natural” progesterone cream is a man-made drug; it’s not the same as, say, a plant or homeopathic remedy. Side-effects of using the cream include (weirdly) breast discomfort and enlargement. This makes sense if you think how many women say that these are also among the first signs of pregnancy, at a time when progesterone levels are high. Some studies suggest the cream may even give an increased risk of breast cancer.
Surgery Some doctors will suggest that the only way to eliminate cyclical breast pain is to cut out your body’s major source of both estrogen and progesterone – that is, your ovaries. Some experts strongly advise against this procedure, which would reduce the pain in your breasts, but it would also send you into menopause overnight. To compensate, your doctor would offer you estrogen-only HRT, but this in itself can cause breast pain, tenderness, and enlargement. Experts suggest, instead, that you adhere to the following recommendations so that you address the cause of your problem.
Eliminate methylxanthines Substances found in coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, decaffeinated coffee, and certain medications, methylxanthines have been shown to cause breast discomfort. For this reason, it’s important to eliminate them completely from your diet. Check labels when you buy.
Reduce saturated fat Eat a low-saturated-fat diet because a high intake of saturated fat (found in red meat, cakes, pastries and so on) can increase estrogen levels in your body.
Eat phytoestrogens A good intake of phytoestrogens in your diet, especially from legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, soy, and so on, can have a balancing effect on your hormones. Breast problems tend to occur less frequently in cultures around the world where these foods are consumed on a regular basis.
Increase fiber Having a good intake of fiber can help with breast pain because it helps remove excess hormones from your body. If you’re constipated or not passing a bowel movement regularly, then your body isn’t eliminating waste products, toxins, and hormones efficiently. Soluble fiber, which is found in vegetables and whole grains such as oats and brown rice, has the most benefit in terms of breast pain because it contains the kind of fiber that bonds to hormones. Make sure you’re having at least one helping of whole grains and two servings of vegetables a day.
• B-Complex The B-vitamins in general are important for treating breast pain because they help your body to excrete excess hormones.
• Vitamin E Research shows that vitamin E can help ease breast pain. You can increase your intake of vitamin E from your food by including almonds, leafy green vegetables, oats, soy, and whole grains. Also add vitamin E in supplement form for three months while you’re trying to increase your intake with your food. It’s best to take it as d-alpha tocopherol, not dl-alpha tocopherol, which is a synthetic version.
• Evening primrose oil The gamma linolenic acid (GLA) in evening primrose oil ahs a balancing effect on the good and bad prostaglandins in your body, reducing breast pain. If you have epilepsy check with your doctor before taking any capsules containing GLA.
• Probiotics (containing at least ten billion organisms per capsule; one capsule daily) Probiotics can help lower levels of the enzymes in your body that reabsorb old hormones. They also encourage regular bowel movements, which further reduce the chances of toxins being reabsorbed into your system.
Other Natural Treatments
• Aromatherapy To ease discomfort, try a breast compress laced with essential oils. Add 3 drops each of ginger, German chamomile, and lavender oils to a bowl containing 1 cup warm water. Lay a folded gauze over the surface of the water for ten seconds, so that it soaks up the floating oil particles. Remove it and wring it out. Place the cloth over one bare breast for five to ten minutes. Repeat on the other breast, if necessary.
• Exercise Regular exercise helps balance hormones. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of any exercise that leaves you slightly breathless.
• Check your breasts It’s worth reiterating here how crucial it is that you check your breasts regularly (daily if you’re concerned, otherwise once a month).
Some research has suggested that simply ditching the habit of wearing a bra can ease the discomfort of cyclical breast pain and even reduce fibrocysts, if you suffer from them. Some doctors believe that a bra can restrict the flow of lymph through your breast tissue (there are lymph glands just underneath each breast), allowing toxins to accumulate and cause pain. Although we’ve yet to discover a firm connection between breast problems and bra-wearing, try to avoid wearing underwire or tight-fitting bras. Opt instead for camisoles or tank-tops with built-in support, or at the very least use a wireless bra. Whenever you can (especially at nighttime), go braless altogether.