What does your breast health say about your fertility? More than you might think. We tend to only associate breasts with either sexuality or as nourishment for a baby, both of which are an aspect of fertility, but the breasts can be a tool for signaling imbalances within the fertility cycle.
The breasts are glandular organs. They are highly sensitive to the hormones. In fact, they go through cyclic changes in sync with the menstrual cycle. Breast tissue goes through cyclic changes that reflect the changes that are happening in the uterus. When the uterine lining is building up with fluid, so are the breasts. When the lining of the uterus sheds, so does the fluid in the breasts, but that fluid is reabsorbed by the body. Hormones the breasts are responsive to are estrogen, progesterone, and prolactin.
Stimulation of the breasts, especially the nipples, can also signal hormone release which directly acts on the reproductive organs. For example, nipple stimulation stimulates the clitoris, which signals a release of prolactin and oxytocin, which in turn stimulates contractions of the uterus and pelvic floor muscles surrounding the reproductive organs.
Breast Changes – A Sign of a Greater Issue?
What to pay attention to and when to seek care…
“Your breasts are a vital part of your women’s wisdom, and you want to learn to listen to them.” -Christiane Northrup, M.D.
Approximately half of all women that go to see a doctor go to see them because of breast pain. It is important to get to know and pay attention to when the breast pain happens, where it is located, and for how long it has been taking place. This may give you vital clues to what may be happening in your body, especially in relation to nutritional levels and the menstrual cycle. Some pain is normal as the breast tissue swells during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle each month, but more tender than normal breasts may be giving you clues about your body that need more attention.
Breast pain that comes and goes with the menstrual cycle is known as cyclic mastalgia. The most common breast pain happens premenstrually; just before menstruation. This is associated with hormonal changes that occur with the menstrual cycle. All women retain some amount of fluid during the luteal phase but, in some women, this slight fluid increase, combined with hormonal changes, may cause pressure and inflammation of the breast tissues. The inflammatory chemicals (prostaglandins and cytokines) that cause menstrual cramps can also cause breast pain.
There are common reasons this may occur and there may be simple at-home remedies to prevent and alleviate the pain.
Common causes of cyclic mastalgia and what can be done:
A common cause of breast pain is low levels of the important nutrient iodine. Iodine deficiency is the leading cause of hypothyroidism, which has a great impact on fertility. Breast pain caused by iodine deficiency may signal a greater threat to overall reproductive and body function: thyroid health.
Iodine deficiency in the United States is quite common and upping iodine intake may be all that is needed to help reduce breast pain and support thyroid function. This can be done either through supplementation or by eating more iodine rich foods. One recent study of women with breast pain showed that 6 mg of iodine supplementation daily reduced overall breast pain in half of all those who took part in the study (The Breast Journal). Another study showed that supplementation of iodine (sodium iodide or protein-bound iodine), reduced breast pain from fibrocystic changes 40-70% of the time (Canadian journal of surgery, also the Journal canadien de chirurgie).
Foods rich in iodine: Sea vegetables (seaweed), raw cranberries, whole fat organic yogurt, raw dairy products, Navy beans, strawberries, potatoes with the skin left on, and Himalayan Crystal Salt (table salt is often enriched with iodine, but this salt has naturally occurring iodine).
Note: For women diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, iodine supplementation is not suggested.
When the estrogen to progesterone ratio tips toward estrogen dominance, the highly estrogen-sensitive breast tissues may be overstimulated, causing pain. Estrogen dominance is linked to many fertility issues women face today, including endometriosis, PCOS, uterine fibroids, and ovarian cysts. Breast pain is quite common for women with these conditions.
Stress, caffeine intake (coffee), more than 1 glass of alcohol per day, environmental exposure to xenoestrogens, history of birth control pill use, high body fat levels, and non-organic food consumption have all been linked as causes for estrogen dominance.
What can you do to help promote healthy estrogen balance?
- Avoid coffee or other caffeinated beverages; studies show this increases estrogen levels.
- Eat a variety of phytoestrogens daily (ground flax, red clover, Dong quai rt., Licorice rt., beans, sesame seeds).
- Eat organic foods, especially meat and dairy products. This helps to avoid chemicals and hormones that mimic estrogen.
- Maintain a BMI between 19 and 24. If your BMI is higher, try to reduce it to below 30 as a starting goal. Body fat manufactures estrogen; the more body fat a person has, the more estrogen she makes.
- Avoid alcohol consumption. Just one glass of alcohol daily can increase estrogen levels, increases risk for breast cancer, and lowers fertility.
- Support liver health and hormonal balance with Fertility Cleansing.
- Consider natural family planning rather than using hormonal medications for birth control. Though this may not be practical for all, it is worth looking into!
- DIM (Diindolylmethane) supplementation has been shown to help the body metabolize and remove excess estrogen from the body.
- Eat more fiber. Fiber helps remove excess estrogen from the body. Foods that are rich in fiber are fruits, vegetables, dark leafy greens, and beans.
- Consume essential fatty acids. EFAs from Flax seeds and Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) are known to be anti-inflammatory. In Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health by Dr. Aviva Romm, “One double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 73 women with either cyclic or non-cyclic mastalgia found that 1000mg of EPO three times daily over 3 months significantly reduced symptoms of pain and tenderness in the women who received EPO compared with placebo.”
- Exercise regularly. Sweating promotes regular detoxification and helps maintain healthy body fat levels.
- Dr. Christiane Northrup suggests using Castor Oil Packs, “Applied to the breasts three times per week for one hour, over two or three months, castor oil packs often eliminate breast pain, particularly if there is swelling of breast tissue. A maintenance program of once per week thereafter is recommended.”
- Progesterone supplementation. If estrogen dominance is a real problem, low progesterone levels may be as well.
The breasts are comprised of fat and connective tissue. As they go through changes throughout the menstrual cycle and the entire female fertility cycle over a lifetime, a woman may notice that breast tissue in general feels lumpy. Typically, a lump is benign and not associated with reproductive health issues, though some benign breast lumps and cysts may be caused by hormonal imbalance, which may affect reproductive function.
Note: As a standard practice, it is suggested that if you find a breast lump, it should be inspected by a doctor to rule out any risk of breast cancer.
Fibrocystic Breast Disease
Today approximately 70% of women are told they have “fibrocystic breast disease.” Many clients we have worked with have been told that this increases their risk for breast cancer and uterine fibroids. During the 1970s and ‘80s, a couple of studies came out stating that women with fibrocystic breast disease were at an increased risk for breast cancer. A review of those studies in 1985 by the National Cancer Association Consensus Committee showed that 70 to 80 percent of what is diagnosed as fibrocystic breast disease is actually normal changes within the breast and is not linked to an increase in breast cancer. Many women still believe it is though, and some of that misinformation is still coming from their doctors. In addition, fibrocystic breast changes are not associated with uterine fibroid development.
As a woman ages, the ratio of fat to connective tissue changes, so it is quite normal for some areas to feel more denser than others. Most all women undergo what pathologists call fibrocystic breast changes, so finding a benign fibrocystic breast lump is quite common. 60-90% of all women experience fibrocystic breast changes or fibroadenomas according to Suzanna M. Zick, ND, MPH in Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. Today fibrocystic breast disease has been used to describe any thickening, tenderness, or other symptoms, even though all of these are quite normal changes in the breast. Some doctors feel that the term fibrocystic breast disease should be discarded. This is because women are being diagnosed with having something that for most women is a normal process within the breast.
The development of non-cancerous breast cysts is quite common due to hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle, as well as over the lifetime of the female fertility cycle. Most all breast cysts will go away over time, but they can become quite large and painful in some women. All lumps should be checked out by your doctor.
The good news is that breast cysts are not a sign of any fertility issue, though they may be a sign of congestion within the body and a difficulty in the body removing toxins and excess hormones. Fertility Cleansing, castor oil packs on the area of the breast cyst, and drinking more clean, filtered water daily may be helpful.
Breast cysts are most common in women in their forties and they move toward menopause and perimenopause signals a shift in hormones. Most all breast cysts disappear during menopause. For most women under 35, a breast cyst may be watched for several cycles to see if it goes away.
Note: Castor Oil packs should not be used on malignant tumors.
Believe it or not nipple discharge can be quite normal after nipple stimulation, typically after lovemaking. This small amount of nipple discharge is not dangerous. For women who have breastfed a baby, it can take a year or more for milk discharge to completely disappear.
Regular, persistent nipple discharge that is not associated with previous breastfeeding or nipple stimulation may be a sign of hormonal imbalance or pituitary tumor, both of which may greatly impact fertility health. The nipple discharge may be milky to a clear greenish or in rare cases may be bloody. Any woman with persistent nipple discharge in the absence of previous pregnancy and breastfeeding should see a doctor for hormone testing and if bloody, to rule out cancer. A common cause of irregular nipple discharge is elevated levels of the hormone prolactin, known as hyperprolactinemia. Galactorrhea is the flow of milk in the absence of pregnancy or childbirth and is often caused by hyperprolactinemia. Both are associated with hypothyroidism and sometimes a benign pituitary tumor known as pituitary microadenoma.
Elevated levels of prolactin and/or a diagnosis of hypothyroidism directly affect fertility health and a woman’s ability to reproduce. Elevated levels of prolactin may cause an irregular menstrual cycle, disrupt ovulation, increase the risk of miscarriage, and cause infertility. Both conditions should be thoroughly evaluated and treated by a medical health care professional right away, especially if you are trying to get pregnant.
Women diagnosed with hyperprolactinemia are almost always given bromocriptine to lower prolactin levels. While we don’t recommend taking any herbs while taking bromocriptine, we do find that herbs that support pituitary function like vitex and maca may be an option for women not taking any medications. It would be best to find a Naturopathic Doctor, or skilled herbalist to work with for this.
In the case of hyperprolactinemia associated with sluggish thyroid, a natural thyroid support supplement may a good option.
Pay Attention to Your Breast Health
Now that you know your breasts have a cycle that mirrors the menstrual cycle and that stimulation of them directly affects the muscles of the uterus and surrounding area, you should pay more attention to them. The breasts can tell you so much about what is going on not only with them, but with your reproductive system and your hormones. Breast symptoms such as pain, lumps, and discharge can all be signs that something is “off”, “whether it be a hormonal imbalance, a signal that diet changes and liver cleansing may need to take place, or when it is time to seek care of a doctor. Since breast cancer is a great concern for women today, it is always best to see a doctor if you feel something isn’t right.
Learn how to do a self-breast exam, this will help you get to know your unique breast tissues. Remember changes within the breast are quite normal, but symptoms like pain, lumps, and discharge may be a symptom of a greater issue and should be addressed rather than ignored.
- Northrup, Christiane, M.D. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. Bantam Books, 2010.
- Weed, Susun S. Breast Cancer! Breast Health! Ash Tree Press, 1996
- Kessler, J. H. (2004). The Effect of Supraphysiologic Levels of Iodine on Patients with Cyclic Mastalgia. The Breast Journal, 10(4), 328-336. doi:10.1111/j.1075-122x.2004.21341.x Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1075-122X.2004.21341.x
- Ghent, W., Eskin, B., Low, D., & Hill, L. (1993). Iodine replacement in fibrocystic disease of the breast. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 35(5), 453-460. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8221402
- Romm, Aviva, M.D. Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. Churchill Livingstone, 2010