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Many women have been here before: you are doing your monthly self-exam or just happen to brush your chest by accident and you notice it – your breasts suddenly feel more swollen, have a different texture, or even feel lumpier than they did yesterday. Panic ensues, you check, and double check, and then call your doctor to demand the next available appointment.
Is it cancer? Is it pre-cancer? Most likely, it is a condition known as fibrocystic breasts. Also called cystic breasts, fibrocystic breast changes, mammary dysplasia, or fibrocystic breast disease, this condition occurs in the week before menstruation starts due to hormonal changes in the female body. Characterized by a noticeable shift in breast tissue texture and the development of lumps, fibrocystic breasts are considered by the mainstream medical community to be a benign and very common issue. They are also easily treated and managed through a variety of simple remedies.
We here at Health911 understand that when it comes to any changes in breast tissue the first thought that comes to a woman’s mind is breast cancer. The good news is that the process used to distinguish between fibrocystic breasts, an almost universally experienced condition, and breast cancer, a significantly less common disease, is quick and easy.
However, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of seeking a professional medical examination of your symptoms as soon as you notice them. Many women put off visits to the doctor for fear of the diagnosis, yet the key to improving your symptoms, no matter what you are dealing with, is an early diagnosis.To empower you as a patient and provide you as much information as possible, Health911 has compiled a comprehensive guide to fibrocystic breasts and how to manage them.
This document contains the following information related to fibrocystic breasts:
Note: Health911 presents the following information for educational purposes only and does not claim it is a replacement for the recommendations of a trained professional. Before you start or stop any form of supplementation or medication, check with your health care provider.
What are Fibrocystic Breasts?
Fibrocystic breast disease is a condition that occurs due to changes in a woman’s hormone levels at the peak of her menstrual cycle. While the condition may seem dangerous or indicative of a serious problem, fibrocystic breasts are actually exceptionally normal and harmless. Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman even goes so far as to say that “Lumpy breasts are normal.”
In fact, over the past several decades the modern medical community has admitted that referring to it as a “disease” is a misnomer.
Fibrocystic breasts are very common among women of childbearing years. While there is no exact statistic for the condition, estimates range from 50% to 80% of the female population experience symptoms of the condition.
While fibrocystic breasts may be uncomfortable, there are a variety of at home remedies and lifestyle changes that a woman can implement to reduce the effect of fibrocystic breasts and prevent the monthly aggravation of the condition.
Symptoms of fibrocystic breasts can vary from woman to woman, however the most common symptom is the formation of a non-cancerous lump typically located on the upper breast or outer side of the breast up to the armpit. It is normal for a woman to notice more than one lump at a time. These lumps, individually referred to as “fibroids,” become noticeable a week before a woman’s period is due to start, and typically subside as soon as bleeding begins. Some women may be able to feel the lumps all month long but notice they become more tender or swell to a larger size during the final week of her cycle.
In addition to the development or swelling of fibroids, a woman may notice that the texture and consistency of all of her breast tissue changes. Most of the time, breast tissue feels slightly dense, smooth, and soft; during the majority of a woman’s cycle, the breast tissue does not feel tender, sore, or uncomfortable to the touch. However, women who experience fibrocystic breasts note that during the final week of their cycle their breast tissue become denser and feels bumpy. Some common words used to describe this sensation include “cobblestoned” and “lumpy;” it has also been explained as feeling like corduroy under the skin. Dr. Jonathan Wright, noted alternative remedy practitioner, notes that sometimes the symptoms can be so severe that “some women have cysts so painful they can’t lie on their stomachs or even be hugged without pain.”
Women may also experience dull pain or an itching sensation on and around the nipples, or a sensation of fullness (which some women describe as “swollen”).
These symptoms start around day 21 of the menstrual cycle and build daily in severity until they reach their peak of discomfort just before menstruation begins. Most women notice that their symptoms disappear or lessen dramatically as soon as bleeding begins.
However, over time, some women note that the tenderness, fibroids, or other symptoms of the condition stop waxing and waning with their cycles. As Susan M. Lark, M.D., writes “With repeated cycles of hormonal stimulation, the breast cysts may become chronically inflamed and surrounded by fibrous tissue which can harden and thicken the cysts. It is then more difficult for the fluid trapped in the cysts to escape and be reabsorbed by the body.” To relieve the pressure and discomfort of these harder cysts, as well as distinguish them from cancerous cysts, a simple procedure is performed where the cyst is drained of fluid. This process may need to be repeated occasionally as fluid rebuilds inside the tissue.
It is important to note that the symptoms of fibrocystic breasts are different from those of breast cancer. While the thought of a lump, any kind of lump, in the breast triggers fears of cancers, benign and malignant lumps are very different in texture and density. In her article “Solutions to Your Tough Problems,” found in the December 2002 edition of Natural Health Magazine, Julia Tolliver Maranan notes that “Although it can be difficult to distinguish between fibrocystic tissue and cancer, cancer is usually fixed and hard, whereas fibrocystic lumps are easy to move around and have a rubbery or soft texture.” Furthermore, cancerous lumps are noticeable at all stages of the menstrual cycle and do not wax and wane with hormonal changes.
To help further distinguish this condition from cancer or another breast condition, here are some symptoms that are not associated with fibrocystic breast disease. When you have fibrocystic breasts, you should not experience:
The cause of fibrocystic breasts has not been conclusively identified, however there is no doubt among the medical community that the development and continuation of the condition is linked to key female hormones, genetic predisposition, and certain dietary elements.
The Estrogen-Progesterone Relationship
In the female body, there are two hormones that work together to manage the reproductive cycle: estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen is arguably the most essential hormone involved in all elements of creating, supporting, birthing, and then sustaining a baby. Levels of estrogen in a woman’s body change throughout her 28 day cycle, peaking at the end of the second week and triggering the release of an egg from one of the ovaries. In addition to running the menstrual cycle, estrogen is also key for preparing the body for pregnancy and initiating the lactation process. Estrogen also serves important functions outside of the reproductive cycle, including reducing calcium loss, maintaining a clear complexion, providing energy, and clearing cholesterol blockages from the coronary arteries.
Progesterone, another key female hormone, works in tandem with estrogen in the reproductive process; its basic role is to provide a natural partner and counterbalance to estrogen. In addition to promoting emotional balance, progesterone counteracts the effects of estrogen in many ways, such as reducing water retention and assisting in the proper processing of alcohol, sugar, and fatter foods. When progesterone levels are too low, the effects of estrogen become more pronounced.
Progesterone is so successful in managing the effects of estrogen that it is often given in prescription form to help women reduce the symptoms of severe PMS. Many birth control pills utilize a special ratio of progesterone to estrogen to prevent ovulation as well as reduce water retention and heavy menstrual flow.
Even though these two hormones are responsible for many positive things in the female body, when they are out of balance or at unnaturally high levels they can also be a dangerous factor. When there is too much progesterone in the body, a woman can experience symptoms of fatigue, muscle soreness, weight gain, and increased appetite. When a woman is experiencing unnaturally high estrogen levels, the dangers are considerably more sinister. This scenario is referred to as estrogen dominance.
Dr. Susan M. Lark writes, “The main hormones implicated in the worsening of breast symptoms premenstrually include estrogen, the main female hormone, and prolactin, the milk release hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. Dr. Aftab J. Ahmed calls estrogen the “most important factor in breast pathology,” and has stated that it is a “turncoat agent.”
Estrogen dominance, a condition that occurs when there are abnormally high levels of estrogen in the body and reduced levels of progesterone, has been linked not only to the development of fibrocystic breasts but also to the development of breast cancer. It can also cause water retention, weight gain (as it affects the body’s ability to process fat), uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and cervical dysplasia. Some indications of too much estrogen in the body include insomnia, tremors, sensitive skin, short term memory problems, heavy menstrual period symptoms, and severe PMS.
A woman’s estrogen levels can be increased through a variety of factors. Certain medications, such as cortisone creams or antidepressants, can trigger an increase in estrogen production. Stress, either physical or emotional, can also prompt the body to produce more estrogen than normal. Some types of foods, particularly alcohol, sugar, fried foods, and food high in fat, have also been linked to abnormal estrogen production. Soy beans naturally contain estrogen, which the body treats as its own, meaning that the higher the soy content of the diet the more estrogen the body is absorbing and utilizing.
Unfortunately, many other foods in the municipal supply are unnaturally tainted with estrogen due to the common use of pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals, designed to protect healthy foods like vegetables and fruits from rot and pests, contain compounds that mimic estrogen. When these foods are eaten, the chemicals are ingested and treated as self-made estrogen particles, causing an increase in estrogen related activity in the body.
The forms of estrogen present in these chemicals are called xenoestrogens. Unlike natural forms of estrogen, xenoestrogens are synthetic compounds that are the result of industrial production. In addition to being found in pesticides and other chemicals, xenoestrogens are also found in the plastic used for water bottles and storage containers. In 2008, a study was published in Environmental Science Technology that stated fish who were exposed to wastewater that was tainted with xenoestrogens experienced significant reproductive problems, including growths on the ovaries. The growing concern among the mainstream medical community is that these synthetic estrogen compounds cause as much, if not more, harm to the general population than natural estrogen dominance alone; furthermore, there is increasing fear over just how much of these chemicals humans are exposed to on a daily basis.
It is important to keep in mind that there are several different types of estrogen present in the female body, and that the carcinogenic form that has been linked to breast cancer is not the form linked to the development of fibrocystic breasts. It is possible, and very common, to have a high amount of one type of estrogen and a normal amount of the other types of estrogen, which is why fibrocystic breasts are not considered a precursor to cancer. Click here to read more about estrogen dominance.
Some medical professionals have identified caffeine as a major cause of fibrocystic breasts. Dr. Lark supports this theory and noted in The Women’s Health Companion that “Dietary factors have also been implicated. These include caffeine intake from coffee, black teas, colas, and chocolate, as well as excessive saturated fat and salt.” Health writer Julia Tolliver Maranan notes that “Caffeinated drinks and foods like coffee and chocolate contain a chemical that over stimulates breast tissue in some women, causing pain.” She also points out that diets that are high in fat can trigger an increase in estrogen production which can cause fibroids to develop.
Another element that some specialists believe plays a part in the development of fibrocystic breasts is using a bra. Ralph L. Reed, Ph.D., points to a study done by Dr. Gregory Heigh in Florida that reported over 90% of women noted an improvement of fibrocystic breast symptoms when they stopped wearing a bra. He also notes that several recent studies have linked bra usage to a higher incidence of breast cancer. Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, authors of the 1995 book Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast cancer and Bras, studied over 5000 women and concluded that a woman’s incidence rate for cancer was linked to the number of hours per day she wore a bra.
Dr. Reed reports that this link is due to the fact that “bras can bind and constrict the lymphatic circulation. This prevents the natural flushing out of accumulated cancer-causing wastes and toxins from the breast. Fluid pooling could then result in fibrocystic changes (benign lumps, cysts, and pain).” He also notes that bras often constrict the natural movement of breasts and therefore reduce blood circulation, causing the breast equivalent of the “falling asleep” feeling limbs experience when circulation is blocked.
This potential cause, while supported by several experts, is more of a fringe theory at this point and has yet to gain serious traction in the mainstream medical community. Also, it supposes a link between fibrocystic breasts and the development of breast cancer, something that is controversial among most medical professionals.
How is It Diagnosed
The number one concern when diagnosing fibrocystic breasts is whether lumps are cancerous or benign. We here at Health911 recommend that all women who notice lumps in their breast tissue immediately make an appointment with their medical professional to be thoroughly examined. If the lump is malignant, the chances for a full and speedy recovery are exponentially increased if treatment is given early. Please don’t self-diagnose – educate yourself on the options and visit a health care professional as soon as possible.
The first tool in the diagnosis process is one every woman can, and should, do at home on a regular basis: the self-exam. Julia Tolliver Maranan writes, “Whether your breasts are lumpy or not, you should know their topography so you can detect potentially cancerous changes.” Do a self-exam a few days after every period.”
To perform an accurate self exam, you need to do each breast twice, once in a standing position and once laying down on your back. This is because standing does not provide adequate access to the under portion of the breast, and laying down makes reaching the sides appropriately a challenge. Here are some quick-tips on performing the self-exam:
The reason the self-exam is so important is that it provides you a base understanding of what is normal for you. Every woman’s breasts are unique, and everyone has their own “normal.” By understanding what is normal for your breasts, you are in a better position to identify any changes that occur. Furthermore, by performing the exam routinely every month, you are in a better position to pick up on changes that occur while they are still in the early stages.
Self-Exam Tip: If you find it hard to remember to perform an exam every month, set up a reminder for yourself on your Smartphone, email service, or in your day planner.
After you have identified something out of the ordinary in your monthly self-exam, you need to set up an immediate appointment with your health care professional for a clinical exam. At this appointment, they will ask you questions about your general health and lifestyle as well as specific questions about the changes you notice. Try to be as specific as possible with details about when you first noticed the change, where you were in your cycle, how it feels to the touch, if other symptoms where associated with it, and how it has continued to change since you first noticed it.
During their examination, your health care professional will perform a physical exam on both your breasts to try to identify the change themselves. If they do not notice anything themselves, they may take a “wait and see” approach and ask you to keep an eye on it for several weeks or update them on the change after your next menstruation. At that point, they will re-examine you and repeat the process.
If they do notice the change, they may then recommend other testing to complete the diagnosis. Here are several of the tests your medical professional may employ to diagnose your breast changes:
Fibrocystic breasts, while uncomfortable and at times a little scary, can be treated through a variety of at home remedies and lifestyle adjustments. Unfortunately, there is no cure for fibrocystic breasts. However, these treatment options have the potential to significantly reduce or completely eliminate the symptoms of the condition in most women.
One of the most effective and well respected treatments for fibrocystic breasts is evening primrose. Evening primrose (oenothera biennis) is a flowering plant native to the Americas. Its oil has been used as a medicinal aid for centuries which is why the plant has garnered the nickname “Kings cureall.” Evening primrose seeds contain a unique mixture of essential fatty acids, especially gamma-linolenic acid, a compound that is used in reducing autoimmune inflammations. This compound has also shown promise for treating breast cancer, however this assertion has not been clinically verified. Evening primrose oil is often used as a natural treatment for PMS.
Tori Hudson, N.D., a naturopath and author of Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine recommends her patients with fibrocystic breasts ingest 3-4 grams of evening primrose oil daily, not just when symptoms flare up. She reports that her patients who follow this program see a complete relief of symptoms within three months.
Cindee Gardener, Ph.D., recommends taking 500 milligrams of evening primrose oil three to six times daily. She also notes it is important to drink plenty of water simultaneously to help the oil flush out extra estrogen and other environmental toxins.
Vitamin E has also been used as a natural treatment for fibrocystic breasts. Tori Hudson notes that some women find relief from the symptoms of fibroids by taking 400-800 IU daily. However, Hudson notes that this treatment has received mixed results in clinical trials for the reduction of tenderness and lumps.
Iodine is a commonly recommended treatment for fibrocystic breasts. It is an element that plays a key role in the proper functioning of the human body. In addition to being used by the thyroid gland to help regulate metabolic function, protein synthesis, and hormone production throughout the body, iodine also plays a vital role in the proper immune functions of the body. It is found in notable levels in the thymus, the central gland of the immune system, indicating iodine is essential for the production of mature white blood cells.
Iodine is also very effective in treating fibroids. Dr. Dave Derry, breast health specialist, states that “iodine enables the excess cells [in the breasts] to be cleared out, and the breast can return to its…state as the fibrocystic disease slowly disappears from the breast.” Dr. Derry even goes so far as to assert that a lack of iodine in the body can lead to the development of fibrocystic breasts.
When her patients are not finding relief with evening primrose oil or vitamin E, Tori Hudson recommends they try supplemental iodine, which is only available through prescription; however, there are several brands of liquid iodine, such as Lugols, that can be purchased over the counter at alternative health stores. Iodine can reduce the body’s sensitivity to estrogen and can, as health writer Julia Tolliver Maranan notes, “actually shrink the dense connective tissue, usually within three months.”
Dr. Jonathan Wright also utilizes iodine for the treatment of fibrocystic breasts, recommending that mild to moderate cases ingest both iodine and magnesium supplements. For more severe cases, where the discomfort is interfering with daily functioning, he suggests swabbing the interior of the vagina with iodine and then following it immediately by an IV injection of magnesium. He writes, “The iodine needs to be placed as close to the ovaries as possible to get the best results.” Dr. Wright asserts that within 60 minutes you can feel the difference in the texture and consistency of breast tissue.
The iodine formula that Dr. Wright recommends to his patients is called SSKI, a combination supplement of both iodine and potassium. He suggests taking eight drops of the formula daily in a glass of water or milk, however recommends that when using this product that a close eye is kept on thyroid hormone levels as iodine can disrupt normal function. Dr. Wright states that he has seen this treatment show results after two to five months.
Natural Progesterone Cream
Several companies make natural progesterone creams that are designed to be massaged into the breasts after the second week of the monthly cycle to reduce symptoms of fibrocystic breasts. These creams deliver progesterone, the counterbalance to estrogen, into the body directly through the skin. The direct application of the hormone cream to areas with the fibroids can help break them up and reduce concentrated estrogen levels quickly.
Flaxseed oil contains phytoestrogens, a type of plant formed estrogen compound similar to the hormone found in soybeans. However, unlike the specific phytoestrogens found in soy, those found in flaxseed does not mimic human estrogens when it is in the body. Instead, it binds with progesterone receptors without stimulating them. Elizabeth Smith, M.D., writes, “The flaxseed phytoestrogen competes with other estrogens that would otherwise stimulate the estrogen receptor. The flaxseed phytoestrogen acts as a blocker.”
Moderate amounts of flaxseed oil in the diet can keep estrogen levels low and over time reduce the effects of fibrocystic breasts.
There are specific dietary adjustments an individual can incorporate into their daily lifestyle to reduce the symptoms associated with fibrocystic breasts. However, it is important to note that these adjustments need to be utilized on a consistent basis, not simply when symptoms flare, to see optimal results. Many substances that can trigger fibroids can linger in the body for days after you have ingested them, so it can take several months of reducing or being off of these triggers to start to see an improvement.
Health writer Maranan suggests eliminating caffeine completely from the diet, as well as dropping the amount of dietary fat consumed to a meager 20% of all ingested calories. She also praises fiber as a key food product for managing the condition, which she says will help the body remove estrogen.
Dr. Wright also supports cutting all sources of caffeine from the diet; some sneaky sources of caffeine include chocolate, hot cocoa, and over the counter weight loss aids like Dexatrim, and pain medications, such as Excedrin. Furthermore, items that state they are decaffeinated, such as decaf coffee, are not completely caffeine free. Decaf coffee is typically 97.9% caffeine free; for many people who are caffeine sensitive this small percentage daily is not enough to cause an adverse reaction, however is often enough to aggravate fibroids. Click here for more information on how caffeine works and affects the body.
Castor Oil Packs
Many health care providers and natural remedy specialists recommend utilizing castor oil packs to reduce the uncomfortable symptoms of fibrocystic breasts. Castor oil has long been utilized in a variety of medicinal remedies throughout the centuries. A vegetable oil procured from the castor bean, there is evidence that cultures as far back as the ancient Egyptians used castor oil to treat a wide range of issues, from burns to cuts to constipation to labor pains.
While castor oil can be ingested, it can also be used as a compress on the skin since the compounds in the oil are small enough to permeate the pores and enter the blood stream. Due to ricinoleic acid, one of the active ingredients in the oil, castor oil compresses act as an anti-inflammatory and can soothe swelling. Because of this ability, it has been favored by many physicians and alternative specialists for reducing lumpiness and pain associated with fibrocystic breasts.
To utilize a castor oil pack, pour the oil on a flannel swatch of fabric and ensure it is soaked (not dripping though). Place the pack on the breasts and then add a heating pad on top of the pack and turn it to medium or high heat. Leave the pack on for an hour to an hour and a half and complete the ritual daily. The result will be noticeably and immediately less tender breast tissue and a reduction in fibroid firmness. These effects should last for 12-16 hours.
Another treatment that has been suggested by several naturopaths for the treatment of fibrocystic breasts is dandelion root, which is often praised for its ability to boost the natural cleansing of estrogen receptors throughout the body.
Borage oil is derived from a flowering plant found through Europe that contains the same active ingredient as evening primrose, gamma-linolenic acid. It is believed to help reduce the discomfort associated with fibrocystic breasts by reducing inflammation of breast tissue and cutting swelling. It also effectively aids in the absorption of iodine in the body. Clinical trials on the compound have been mixed.
Some alternative remedy specialists have suggested that, just as “moss doesn’t grow on a rolling stone,” breasts that have lots of movement – and therefore lots of circulation – are less susceptible to developing fibroids. This thought process has led some to suggest the incorporation of activities that create movement in the breasts, such as running for fifteen minutes daily or jumping on a small trampoline for ten to thirty minutes daily. Massaging with castor oil has also been suggested as a good way to move tissue around and prevent buildup of estrogen fluid.
For many women, fibrocystic breasts and the discomfort they cause are considered just a natural part of being a woman. The waxing and waning of symptoms are often dealt with for a week or so every month and then forgotten until the same time in the next cycle; however, there are a variety of treatments that a woman can incorporate on a daily basis that will not only reduce these symptoms but also improve her overall breast and body health.
The condition may alarm some due to its surface level similarity to breast cancer, however at this time there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that fibrocystic breasts are in any way a precursor to malignant growths. Some medical professionals have claimed this link over the years, however the substance of such cancer-fibrocystic breast studies has been deemed questionable or unable to be replicated.
However, the problem of estrogen dominance, a condition that is considered to be a front runner cause for fibrocystic breasts, has been conclusively proven to be a cancer trigger. Therefore, while fibrocystic breasts are not something to panic over as they themselves don’t lead to cancer, they can be an indication and a monthly warning that the body has too much estrogen floating around. Click here to read more about estrogen dominance.
At the very least, fibrocystic breasts are a reminder to all women who experience them that breast health and active breast monitoring should be of paramount importance when it comes to basic self-care.
Sources and Additional Resources