by Lisa Marshall
We’ve been conditioned to narrowly define breast health in terms of pink ribbon campaigns, cancer awareness marches and cold, steel mammography machines. Nearly 30 years after anticancer drug maker Imperial Chemical Industries (now AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals) established the first National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 1985, many women have come to equate healthy breasts with cancer-free breasts, and assume the most important thing they can do is undergo regular screening.
But amid this chorus, some women’s health advocates are striving to get a different message across: There are a host of steps women can take to not only fend off disease in the future, but keep their breasts in optimal condition today. “We need to change the conversation about our breasts from how to avoid breast cancer and detect it early to how to have healthy breasts and enjoy them,” says Dr. Christiane Northrup, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Yarmouth, Maine, and author of the new book Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being.
Healthy Breasts, Healthy Body
In adolescence, breast changes are the first to signal the arrival of womanhood. When she’s aroused, a woman’s nipples harden and change color. When a woman gives birth, her breasts fill with life-giving milk. “In all these ways, your breasts are deeply connected to your femininity, compassion and sensuality,” says Laurie Steelsmith, a Hawaiian naturopathic doctor and co-author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health. Because breasts are extremely sensitive to hormonal fluctuations throughout the body, they can also serve as a barometer of overall health. “If you’re having chronic breast symptoms, it can be your body’s wisdom saying, ‘Help. Something’s wrong.’ Women need to listen.”
While some premenstrual swelling and tenderness is normal, exaggerated or persistent pain is often a sign of systemic estrogen dominance in relation to progesterone. It’s common in the years leading up to menopause, but can also hint at impaired thyroid function, because low levels of thyroid hormones have been shown to boost estrogen in breast tissue, says Steelsmith.
Large, fluid-filled cysts or fibrous lumps, while non-cancerous, can also be a reflection of overexposure to harmful chemicals and toxin buildup, combined with poor lymph flow, notes Dr. Elizabeth Vaughan, an integrative physician in Greensboro, N.C. “If a woman has lumpy, bumpy breasts, they probably contain too many toxins, and those toxins are primarily estrogenic.” Addressing such symptoms is important not only to relieve discomfort, but also because excess estrogen can fuel future cancer risk, says Vaughan.
Any new, suspicious lump should be evaluated by a professional. Also, severe breast tenderness combined with nipple discharge could be a sign of infection or a problem with the pituitary gland, so it should also be checked. But typically, subtle natural healthcare steps can go a long way toward restoring breast wellness.
For nipple tenderness, Steelsmith recommends chaste-tree berry (175 milligrams [mg] of powdered extract or 40 drops daily). The herbal supplement mimics naturally occurring progesterone in the body, helping to counter estrogen dominance. Vitamin E (400 to 800 international units [IU] per day) and evening primrose oil (1,500 mg twice a day) have also been shown to alleviate breast tenderness.
For fibrous or cyst-filled breasts, Vaughan advises supplementing with iodine (up to 12.5 mg per day via kelp, seaweed or oral tablets) or applying an iodine solution to the breasts at night. A key constituent of thyroid hormones, iodine helps the liver convert unfriendly forms of estrogen into friendlier forms and flush toxins out of lymph nodes in the breast. Also, steer clear of chocolate and coffee, because caffeine is believed to interact with enzymes in the breast, exaggerating pain and lumpiness.
Also consider ditching the bra, says Vaughan. Brassieres can constrict lymph nodes and hinder blood circulation in breasts, locking toxins in and aggravating fibrocystic symptoms. The link between bras and breast cancer risk remains hotly debated, with one 2014 U.S. National Cancer Institute study of 1,400 women concluding unequivocally that, “There’s no evidence that wearing a bra increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer,” while smaller studies from the United States, China, Venezuela, Scotland and Africa suggest a link. Vaughan, the founder of BraFree.org, says the science is compelling enough that she has chosen to keep her own bra use to a minimum and advises her patients to do the same.
“Obviously, there are certain sports where you should wear a sports bra and there are certain dresses that only look right with a bra,” says Vaughan. At a minimum, avoid wearing a bra to bed and steer clear of underwires and overly tight bras that leave red marks. “This is not about guilt-tripping women into never wearing a bra. It’s about wearing a bra less.”
Beautiful Breasts Naturally
Too small or too big, lopsided or riddled with stretch marks… it seems almost every woman has a complaint about the appearance of her breasts. That’s a problem, says Northrup, because, “Healthy breasts are breasts that are loved. We have to stop beating them up.”
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of women getting breast implants for cosmetic reasons ballooned from 212,500 in 2000 to 286,254 in 2014.
Physicians—including Northrup— claim that modern implants don’t, in the majority of cases, promote disease like older silicone implants did. Yet even plastic surgeons warn that having implants should be fully thought out, and at some point they’ll probably have to come out. “They are manmade devices, and are not intended to be lifelong. At some point, you will probably have to have further surgery,” says Dr. Anureet Bajaj, an Oklahoma City plastic surgeon.
Bajaj notes that implants can rupture, forming scar tissue and lending irregular shape to the breast. Often, as a woman ages and her body changes, the larger breasts she chose in her 20s no longer look right and may cause back and shoulder pain. In some cases, implants can also lead to loss of nipple sensitivity. For these and other reasons, 23,774 women—including actress Melissa Gilbert and model Victoria Beckham—had their implants removed in 2014, often following up with a breast lift (using their own tissue) to restore their shape.
Vaughan sees breast implant removal as a wise and courageous choice to restore optimal breast health. Better yet, don’t get implants in the first place. “There are a lot of other things you can do to improve the appearance of your breasts,” she says.
Vaughan recommends breast-perking exercises like dumbbell bench presses and flys that tone the pectoral muscles beneath the breasts, making them more resilient and look larger. To prevent or reverse sagging, she again urges women to go bra-free. “We have ligaments in the upper outer quadrant of our breasts called Cooper’s ligaments, and they’re responsible for holding our breasts up. Just like your muscles atrophy when you put your arm in a sling, your Cooper’s ligaments atrophy if you wear a bra all the time.”
In one unpublished, yet highly publicized 2013 study, French Exercise Physiologist Jean-Denis Rouillon measured the busts of 330 women ages 18 to 35 over a period of 15 years and found those that regularly wore a bra had droopier breasts with lower nipples than those that didn’t. In another, smaller, Japanese study, researchers found that when women stopped wearing a bra for three months, their breasts perked up.
Those worried about stretch marks also have options. They can be a sign of inadequate copper, which promotes collagen integrity and helps skin stretch without injury, says Steelsmith. If rapid weight gain is occurring due to adolescence, pregnancy or for other reasons, try taking copper supplements or applying a topical copper spray on the breasts.
Remember to massage your breasts daily, not only as a “search and destroy mission” for early detection of cancerous lumps, says Northrup, but as a way to get waste products flowing out and loving energy flowing in. “It concerns me that women feel pressured to think of their breasts as two potentially pre-malignant lesions sitting on their chests,” Northrup says. “These are organs of nourishment and pleasure for both ourselves and others. We need to remember that, too.”
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health writer in Boulder, Colo. Connect at LisaAnnMarshall.com.