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Condition - Breast Pain through the Ages

By Cathy Robinson BscDipNutMed MBANT

We often associate breast discomfort with younger women and it can be especially troublesome during their 30’s. Unfortunately, due to hormonal fluctuations throughout women’s lives, it can affect women at all ages, sometimes even beyond the menopause.

Up to two thirds of women will at some point in their lives experience breast tenderness or pain, otherwise known as mastalgia. The pain may fluctuate with the monthly cycle or may not follow any pattern.

Cyclical breast pain is the most common type of breast pain and is associated with hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle or chronic stress. Cyclic pain usually occurs in both breasts. Often the pain starts around ovulation, and increases in severity until the start of menstruation. The pain may be so severe that the sufferer cannot even wear tight-fitting clothing.

However, despite the fact that many women expect breast pain to go away after the menopause, it does not solely affect younger women. Older women tend to experience non-cyclic pain, which may occur in only one breast, is present all the time and in only one specific location.

Non-Cyclic breast pain is sometimes linked to a fibrous mass or fibroadenoma, or a cyst. Fibrocystic changes are characterised by areas of thickened breast tissue. Breast cysts are fluid-filled sacs and occur most frequently in women over the age of 35. Breast cysts often enlarge and become tender or painful just before the menstrual period and are usually found in both breasts. Some cysts are so small they cannot be felt or they may be several inches across. Although a cyst is not cancerous, it is important for a woman who notices any lump or change to see their GP.

During the menstruating years, breast health is affected by the delicate balance of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone. In many women, oestrogen levels rise too high prior to a menstrual period. One of the functions of oestrogen is to stimulate breast cell growth and proliferation, so if oestrogen levels climb too high, this can result in painful, lumpy breasts. Breast cysts also change in size and become tender with rising oestrogen levels. Fibrocystic breasts have dense fibrous tissue in addition to cysts, and again tend to become more lumpy just prior to a period. 

The actions of oestrogen are kept in check by progesterone, which is produced in the second half of each cycle. If too little progesterone is produced, which often happens during times of stress, or during cycles in which ovulation does not occur - common in the pre-menopausal years - oestrogen levels can climb too high.

Once oestrogen has done its job it is passed to the liver where it is broken down ready for excretion. If the liver is overworked, it won’t break down excess oestrogen as efficiently and levels may build up in the body. The digestive system also plays a role in keeping oestrogen at a healthy level.

A healthy population of beneficial bacteria in the intestines will more efficiently ensure that oestrogen is properly eliminated. 

Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is a dietary omega-6 fatty acid found in plant oils, particularly starflower (borage) oil. GLA plays a role in managing inflammation. GLA is not found in high levels in the diet but must be converted from omega 6 fatty acids. However, some women may not be able to perform this conversion well, so supplementing with GLA may provide an answer.

Vitamin E has been widely used in cases of breast cysts. In one study, researchers found that 80% of women with mastalgia given vitamin E for two menstrual cycles reported an improvement in their symptoms. Researchers in Breast Diagnostics at the Mayo Clinic found statistically significant improvements in breast pain following supplementation with both vitamin E and GLA*.

Important nutrients for hormonal balance include magnesium, zinc, and the B complex vitamins especially B6. It is a good idea to take a good multivitamin/mineral which will give you the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals in balanced amounts.

An under-active thyroid gland may be connected with breast cyst formation. Human studies have suggested that women who are iodine deficient may have a predisposition towards developing breast cysts. Kelp contains iodine which is needed by the thyroid gland. 

Liver supporting nutrients such as the amino acids N-acetyl cysteine, methionine, taurine and glutamine can aid detoxification and oestrogen clearance from the body.

Agnus castus is a traditional herbal remedy used to help relieve symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome such as breast tenderness, whilst fermented soya isoflavones can help to balance oestrogen levels by acting as gentle phytoestrogens.

What we eat and drink can influence the health of our breasts, too. It is a good idea to reduce saturated fats including dairy products, red meat and fried foods, which can increase inflammation in the body, and eat the naturally anti-inflammatory essential fats of the omega 3 and 6 series, which are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds.

Avoid sugar, as sugar can increase inflammation, and keep alcohol to a minimum.  

There is evidence that caffeine may contribute to breast pain, so cut down sources of caffeine such as coffee, cola and chocolate. These substances also contain compounds known as methylxanthines which research has shown to be linked to the development of breast cysts.

Soya products such as tempeh and miso naturally contain beneficial phytoestrogens. Flax seeds are also a good source, as well as being high in fibre to improve bowel regularity and oestrogen clearance.

Breast tenderness can be linked to poor lymph flow. Try skin brushing using a natural bristle brush, to improve the circulation and the flow of lymph. Use a light pressure at first and avoid any sensitive areas. Brush daily, towards the heart, before your bath or shower. Massage and rebounding can also improve circulation and lymph flow. Avoid underwired bras which can restrict circulation of the lymph and do not sleep in your bra. 

Article References

Pruthi et al. Vitamin E and Evening Primrose Oil for Management of Cyclical Mastalgia: A Randomised Pilot Study. Alternative Medicine Review. 2010. Volume 15 Number 1. 59–67

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