While most people don’t start thinking about breast health in their 20s and 30s, often it becomes an issue as they enter their 40s. Fibrocystic breasts, cysts, and breast cancer start to become concerns as we get older. Unfortunately, few of us take the necessary (and easy) steps to keep our breasts healthy and to prevent disease. Western medicine says that the causes of breast cancer are unknown — I completely disagree. In this article, I’ll share a few imbalances that can lead to breast cancer and other maladies relating to the breasts — and most importantly, what you can do about it.
What You Will Learn in This Article
- How hormones impact your breast health
- Lifestyle factors for keeping your breasts healthy and happy
- Foods for breast health
- When to see your doctor
- How a self-exam can save your life
Breast health and your hormones
Healthy breasts are greatly dependent on your hormone status. If your hormones are out of balance and you have estrogen dominance, you’re insulin resistant, and you have high cortisol levels, it is going to eventually impact your breast health. Having good breast health is really about having good overall health.
The ongoing Nurses Health Study has found a strong link between hormonal imbalance and breast cancer. In this study, important hormones were measured in women who had gone through menopause. The hormones studied were estrogen, androgenic hormones, DHEA, prolactin, and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). As soon as more than one hormone level was elevated, the risk of breast cancer doubled. When several were elevated, it tripled. The hormone that made the biggest impact on breast cancer risk turned out to be estrogen. While we need estrogen to function, too much of the wrong kind can set us up for cancer.
Of course, cancer is on the extreme end of the breast disease spectrum. Let’s not wait until it gets to that point. Or, if you’ve already struggled through breast cancer, let’s do what we can to keep you in permanent remission.
That brings us to first addressing feminine health on a larger scale. After all, some breast maladies like lumps and fibrocystic breasts can actually be early signs of estrogen dominance. Below are some links to articles and resources on the Hormones Balance website to get you started.
- Addressing Estrogen Dominance
- Treating Adrenal Fatigue to correct cortisol levels
- Fixing your digestion
- Balancing blood sugar and insulin, starting with your breakfast
You may want to sign up for our Estrogen Reset program, which will guide you, step-by-step, in getting your estrogen and progesterone in balance for optimal breast health.
Lifestyle factors for keeping your breasts healthy and happy
1. Eliminate xenoestrogens as much as possible
Xenoestrogens are “foreign” or false estrogens or estrogen-mimicking compounds that majorly mess with our hormones. When the body encounters these xenoestrogens, it acts as though it’s been exposed to higher levels of our own internally-produced estrogens. This causes hormonal chaos.
How do we get exposed to these chemicals? It’s largely through the products we choose to use in our homes (like plastics and cleaners) and on our bodies (like skin and hair care products). I’ve written more about some of these compounds and how to avoid them in What’s hiding in your laundry soap?, Top 10 Toxic Skin Care Ingredients that Impact Hormonal Health, and Could Ingredients in Your Makeup Induce Early Menopause?
In these articles, you’ll find tips and suggestions for reducing your exposure to xenoestrogens like BPA, parabens, and phthalates, which can accumulate in breast tissue.
The other way to look at it is to pick products that are clean and safe, and don’t require you to be a chemist to figure out the safety of each ingredient. We feature such products on our All Things We Love page.
2. Get some exercise!
According to the National Cancer Institute, physical activity, like walking or jogging, has been shown to lower breast cancer risk in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women (an average of 12% reduced risk). Postmenopausal women had an overall greater protective benefit from exercising, but there were improvements in both groups.
3. Be smart with smartphones
Please, do NOT keep your cellphone in your bra. Cellphones may cause negative changes to tissues of our body. While there aren’t yet any studies on cell phones and breast disease, cancer expert, Robert Nagourney of the Nagourney Cancer Institute, shared a case of a young woman who regularly carried her cell phone in her bra and later developed multiple breast tumors in that exact spot. Of course, that’s one person whose story was actually recorded, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
4. Give the bra a break
The bra is not ubiquitous throughout the world now, nor was it ever natural to our physiology. Push up and tight bras can reduce circulation and lymphatic flow to the breast tissue, which could potentially increase risk for disease. However, at this point, there aren’t any studies that prove bras to be harmful. But, if you’re just hanging out at home for the day (and aren’t expecting company), maybe give the bra a break. The entire body needs circulation and lymph flow, including the breasts.
5. Eat right for healthy breasts
There are a number of changes you can make in your diet to promote healthy breast tissue…
Foods for breast health
Some of the best foods for breast health are the ones that help lower your levels of “dirty estrogen.” These are cruciferous vegetables, or members of the brassica family, and they include cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, radishes and arugula. Cruciferous vegetables are rich in a substance called DIM (diindolylmethane), which is key in liver detoxification as well as the elimination of mutated estrogen metabolites. This, in turn, helps women maintain a healthy balance of estrogen, progesterone and thyroid hormone, which is critical if you want to naturally balance hormones and have healthy breasts.
Cruciferous vegetables can also help you filter estrogen metabolites from your body. A pilot study published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer found that supplementation with 108 mg of DIM per day increased the 2-hydroxylation of estrogen urinary metabolites in postmenpausal women (age 50-70) who had a history of early-stage breast cancer.
Since these estrogen byproducts can be harmful if they keep circulating at high levels, women who eat their cruciferous vegetables may reduce their tendency toward estrogen dominance. Stabilizing estrogen can also help to stabilize other important hormones.
Here’s a list of some cruciferous vegetables to include in your diet to promote healthy breast tissue:
- Arugula (rocket)
- Bok choy
- Broccoli and broccoli sprouts
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
An important tip: Broccoli sprouts are the richest source of sulforaphane, which helps the body detoxify, lowers inflammation, and reduces risk of developing breast cancer.
Even if you’re dealing with estrogen dominance, you can still keep gentle, plant-based estrogens in your diet. You still need estrogen, of course! As a woman, you need it to have healthy breasts, curvy figure, periods, glowing hair and skin, etc. The issue is not having estrogen, but not being able to break it down. Here are some healthy, phytoestrogen-rich foods to enjoy for breast health:
Iodine detoxifies our “dirty” estrogens and plays a key role in breast and brain health. We have iodine receptors in our breasts, thyroid, brain, adrenals, and ovaries so an iodine deficiency compromises energy levels, cognition, and immune function and factors into breast lumps and breast cancer. I cannot tell you how many women regain energy and mental sharpness after eating more kelp (they put it into a bone broth). This is why you will find a few of our recipes containing seaweed.
Many people in the United States are iodine deficient. Choose clean, toxin-free products, harvested in the United States. Do not buy seaweed from China.
Seaweed is a fantastic source of iodine and can be found in:
- kelp (kombu), has the highest amount of iodine
- nori, low in iodine
What you can do with seaweed: Add dried kelp, hijiki, or wakame to bone broths or soups, or use them to make salads.
Beware of bright green seaweed salad. That color is fake. Natural seaweed is a dirty green color.
Caution: Do not consume iodine in high amounts if you have Hashimoto’s and elevated TPO antibodies.
Antioxidant- or polyphenol-rich foods and beverages
Polyphenols are a group of over 500 phytochemicals which are naturally occurring micronutrients in plants. They are highly medicinal in nature and many supplement companies are cashing in on that.
Some of the polyphenols include quercetin (found in apples), catechins (in dark chocolate and cherries), lignans (in flaxseed), resveratrol (in pistachios, wine, and blueberries) and curcumin (in turmeric).
A few great polyphenol-rich foods for breast health include:
- Pomegranate (ellagic acid)
- Raspberries (ellagic acid)
- Onions (quercetin)
- Turmeric (curcumin)
- Green tea (catechins)
- Grapes (resveratrol)
For more hormone-balancing foods and ideas, pick up a copy of my book, Cooking for Hormone Balance. It will give you some fresh inspiration and easy ways to include these hormone-balancing and breast health-promoting foods in your diet without even having to think about it.
Supplements for Breast Health
There are a few supplements you can try that may make a big difference, especially if you combine it with a good diet.
Have you ever noticed your breast becoming more tender after a stressful period? That’s because stress robs the body of many nutrients, magnesium included. I certainly have experienced that in my own body. Most women are chronically low in magnesium (this is also why we crave chocolate – cacao is very high in magnesium) and I feel it’s a highly underestimated mineral. Start with 300mg of magnesium per day and titrate up until you get a loose stool. You may need as much as 1200mg per day to replenish and then lower it until your bowel movement returns to normal. I recommend to take magnesium in a glycinate form (not oxide or citrate), I personally take our Wellena Magnesium Replenish.
DIM, Sulforaphane and Calcium D-glucarate
DIM has gained much attention as the “estrogen buster” that can help with estrogen dominance. It is only partly true because it’s also an incomplete view of estrogen dominance. Estrogen gets cleared at various stages in the body and DIM helps with Phase I liver detoxification. Most women need support in Phase II liver detox as well – this is where sulforaphane (derived from broccoli sprouts, in very concentrated form) and calcium d-glucarate come in. I feel like sulforaphane is another underestimated (but expensive) substance – not only does it clear estrogens but also activates the NrF2 pathway (drastically reducing inflammation) and literally kills cancer stem cells. Calcium d-glucarate supports the glucoridination liver pathway – which is also highly involved in clearing estrogens. So there you have it: The perfect combo. We put them together in the Estrogen Reset Kit.
Progesterone offsets the work of estrogen – they are two perfect partners but they need to be in balance. As we age, both estrogen and progesterone drop but often times, progesterone drops a lot more, making estrogen too high and potentially harmful. Low progesterone could cause estrogen dominance – the leading cause of lumpy and fibrocystic breasts. You can try adding progesterone to your protocol (chances are that many other of your symptoms improve such as sleep or anxiety). I personally use our Wellena ProgestPure which uses no mineral oils, fragrances, phthalates and other synthetics.
When to see your doctor
Breasts are dynamic and change according to your time of the month, age, and pregnancy status. However, there are certain things to watch for that are red flags and may require a visit to the doctor.
The American Cancer Society warns, “The most common symptom of Breast Cancer is a new lump or mass.”
According to the well-respected Mayo Clinic, here’s a list of signs and symptoms that warrant a doctor’s appointment:
- A lump or thickening in the breast
- A change in size, shape, or appearance of the breast
- Dimpling, pitting, or redness of the skin on the breast
- A newly inverted nipple
- Changes to the pigmented area surrounding the nipple (areola), such as peeling, scaling, crusting, or flaking
- Continuous or worsening breast pain
- Breast changes that persist after your period
- A change in the size or shape of a breast lump already evaluated
It’s a good idea to be familiar with how your individual breasts look and feel so that you can detect changes. Properly and consistently conducted self-exams can be a great way to make sure everything stays normal.
In fact, in the Practice Bulletin No. 179 of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it was stated that approximately 50% of breast cancer cases in women age 50+ and 71% of breast cancer cases in women age 49 and younger are detected by the women themselves, rather than through testing.
And a 25-year Canadian study that observed 90,000 women found that, “Annual mammography in women aged 40-59 does not reduce mortality from Breast Cancer beyond that of a physical examination.”
Once a year may not be enough.
If you look at the pie chart shown on this study, you’ll see that the percent of patient-detected breast cancers was the same as that of mammograms: 43%. So, self-exams are as effective as mammograms without the exposure to radiation and potential DNA damage to tissue which can increase risk for cancer, of all things.
Photos by Annie Spratt, Leigh Cooper, Trifon Yurukov, and Priscilla Du Preez.