It is no secret that breast cancer and other hormone-related breast problems are on the rise. This time of year, grocery stores, car bumper stickers, and even NFL jerseys and cleats sport bright pink ribbons, packaging, and badges designed to “Support the Cure.”
While this is a good thing in some ways, I’ve often thought that the effort to find a “cure” in most cases doesn’t address the things women can do BEFORE there is a problem to help avoid it all together. The same goes for other areas of female health.
Ironically, these messages about stopping breast cancer are often on packages of food made from refined grains, sugars, and vegetable oils! My goal in this post is to point out the connection between everyday diet and lifestyle factors and how they can support or hurt breast health.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
The rising rates of breast health problems are certainly not caused by a single factor and there are a wide variety of internal and external factors that can contribute. Research is continuing to find new factors that seem to influence breast health, from big factors like vitamin D levels and chemicals found in breast tissue to the small amounts of toxins and chemicals we encounter daily.
Hormones play a definite role in breast-related problems, which is why hormonal contraceptives and abortion are both linked to higher rates of breast cancer.
A Natural Approach
While there are natural approaches to dealing even with breast cancer and I have personally spoken to several women who reversed their breast cancer naturally, a natural preventative approach gives the body a boost before a major problem arises. Certainly, factors like genetic predisposition contribute, but the research is continually showing how external factors and lifestyle choices can have a big impact on breast health.
Though it is often fighting an uphill battle in today’s world, the body naturally wants to be in a state of health and has an amazing capability to heal itself when given the right support. One thing is certain, a person doesn’t get breast cancer or other cancers from a deficiency in chemotherapy drugs, and while these are often used to treat the obvious problem, they don’t address the cause.
Fortunately, there are a variety of natural ways to boost breast health and these methods are non-invasive and also support the health of the rest of the body. Factors that can directly or indirectly contribute to breast health are…
Diet for Breast Health
It is logical that diet can affect breast health just as it affects many other aspects of health. Research on cancerous breast tissue shows a high amount of chemicals in many cases, including aluminum, parabens, and others. Eating a real food diet of whole, fresh foods prepared at home can greatly reduce chemical exposure from food.
Eating a freshly prepared, whole-foods diet will also help avoid estrogen like compounds that are found in food packaging, plastics, food additives, canned foods and drinks, and soy products. Even more disturbing are the rising rates of these estrogen mimicking compounds in the water supply that are a result of run off from factory farms and consumption of estrogen based hormonal contraceptives. Most water treatments do not remove these compounds and we (and our children) drink them daily.
Consuming foods rich in antioxidants has also been associated with a lower risk of breast problems.
Herbs and Supplements for Breast Health
“University of California researchers estimate 250,000 cases of colon cancer and 350,000 cases of breast cancer could be prevented worldwide by increasing intake of vitamin D. Sunlight spurs production of vitamin D in the skin, and people who don’t get much sun exposure tend to have lower levels of the vitamin.”
The most natural way to get Vitamin D is from moderate and safe exposure to the sun, which I only do in combination with a skin-supporting diet that maximizes Vitamin D production. Of course, in some places it isn’t possible to get adequate sun exposure daily. Personally, I take Fermented Cod Liver Oil year round as it has a very available form of Vitamin D balanced with necessary Vitamin A. This is the single factor that I have noticed the biggest health improvements from doing.
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been associated with a lower risk of breast problems. As one article explained: “Women with the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies, have a 500% lower incidence of metastasis compared to women with the lowest levels of omega-3’s”
The theory is that Omega-3’s work to reduce risk in several ways, from reducing the effect of estrogen-like compounds to decreasing inflammation. Fermented Cod Liver Oil also a good source of Omega-3s as are wild caught fish and grass-fed meats.
Curcumin, an extract from Turmeric, is a potent antioxidant that has also been found to help boost breast health. It is available in capsule form, or it can be obtained by adding turmeric to the diet in cooking or in a daily cup of Turmeric Tea.
There has also been some research on the link between proper iodine levels and breast health. The book, Breast Cancer and Iodine, covers this in depth and since iodine is also often tied to thyroid function, this is another reason that balancing hormones is so important for many aspects of health.
Deodorant and Breast Health
There has been debate in the past about the presence of chemicals in deodorants and antiperspirants and their link to breast health. One recent study found aluminum in cancerous breast tissue that had been removed during a mastectomy. The aluminum concentration was higher in tissue near the armpit.
“Aluminium is added to deodorants to prevent sweating. The metal has been shown to trigger cancer in animals but it is not known whether or not this could cause the same problems in humans.”
Many commercial deodorants also contain parabens and estrogen mimicking chemicals that may also impact breast health.
The great news is that there are natural, inexpensive, effective deodorant options that do not contain any of these chemicals.
Here are my recipes for homemade options:
Clothing and Breast Health
Though controversial, several doctors and researchers have pointed to a link between bras (especially underwire bras) and increased risk of breast cysts and cancer. The theory is that regularly wearing a snug fitting bra at this point of the body can restrict lymph flow and impede the body’s ability to remove toxins from this part of the body. As this article from Michael Schachter, MD explains:
Over 85 percent of the lymph fluid flowing from the breast drains to the armpit lymph nodes. Most of the rest drains to the nodes along the breast bone. Bras and other external tight clothing can impede flow.
The nature of the bra, the tightness, and the length of time worn, will all influence the degree of blockage of lymphatic drainage. Thus, wearing a bra might contribute to the development of breast cancer as a result of cutting off lymphatic drainage, so that toxic chemicals are trapped in the breast.
A book written on the subject, Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras, explains that from the authors’ research:
- Women who wore their bras 24 hours per day had a 3 out of 4 chance of developing breast cancer
- Women who wore bras more than 12 hour per day, but not to bed, had a 1 out of 7 risk
- Women who wore their bras less than 12 hours per day had a 1 out of 52 risk
- Women who wore bras rarely or never had a 1 out of 168 chance of getting breast cancer
Dr. Mercola explains that this effect may be caused by other bra-related factors as well:
Another group of Japanese researchers discovered that wearing a girdle or bra can lower your levels of melatonin by 60 percent. The hormone melatonin is intimately involved with the regulation of your sleep cycles, and numerous studies have shown that melatonin has anti-cancer activities. (8) It’s also a powerful antioxidant, and can prevent DNA damage and bind to T-helper cells. Furthermore, researchers in Spain published a study detailing the possible use of melatonin in breast cancer prevention and treatment.
While this topic has been surprisingly controversial, my personal take is that removing tight-fitting under-wire bras may have a positive benefit and wearing them may have a negative effect. Since I don’t find underwire bras the least bit comfortable anyway, this is a change I’m happy to make. While some women are fine not wearing bras at all, my DDs don’t like that idea…
At the suggestion of a friend, I tried Coobie bras, which are wire-free, not tight fitting and have removable pads (which I use and also replace with nursing pads while nursing. I was able to find them locally, but the price was quite a bit cheaper on Amazon, and there were a lot of color options. I’ve found that they provide enough support without being tight at all and work to nurse in, work out in, and to keep nipples from being visible under shirts (TMI?).
While the link between bras and cancer continues to be debated, I’m definitely more comfortable!
Hormones and Breast Health
Hormones play a tremendous role in breast cancer, which is why HRT, contraceptives, and procedures that un-naturally change hormone levels can increase risk of breast problems. As I mentioned above, excess estrogen and estrogen-mimicking compounds have been linked to higher rates of breast cancer.
While we go to great lengths to avoid chemicals in our food, toiletries, and environment, many people are exposed to large amounts of these chemicals willingly in the form of hormonal contraceptives.
Hormonal contraceptives, by their nature, work to alter the normal hormone function of the body in order to prevent pregnancy. As the packaging of any hormonal contraceptive will explain, this puts the user at higher risk of cancers, heart disease, blood clots, stroke, bone loss, and more.
The link between contraceptives and cancer has been well documented and injectable contraceptives seem to carry an increased risk with one study showing that they double breast cancer risk. Hormone replacement therapies, which utilize some of the same artificial hormones are also correlated with a higher risk of cancer.
Additionally, taking medications that alter hormones (like contraception or HRT) can mask symptoms of hormone-related problems and make them harder to detect.
As Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, a breast surgical oncologist, explains:
“This stuff is not new, it’s not magic, it’s in the literature,” she said, linking pill use to the 660% rise in non-invasive breast cancer since 1973. “Women want to know, and women have a right to know, what researchers have known for over 20 years.”
She compared media treatment of the pill’s cancer risk to that of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which was found to be carcinogenic in 2002. Once word got out, 15 out of 30 million women in America taking HRT stopped; by 2007, invasive breast cancer in women over 50 for estrogen-receptive positive tumors dropped 11 percent.
Meanwhile, she noted, hormonal contraception – essentially the same drug as HRT and with a similar cancer risk, about 25-30 percent – continues to be touted as harmless and even healthy. And yet, the International Agency on Research of Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, classified hormonal contraceptives in 2005 as a group one carcinogen along with asbestos and radium.”
This is a topic I highly encourage women to research themselves as the increasing presence of these chemicals in the water supply is leading to problems in animal life and even in children.
Personally, I suggest and use the Sympto-Thermal method of natural family planning, a natural option for spacing/achieving/delaying pregnancy. There are some great resources for using these natural methods of naturally family planning and these methods don’t alter the natural hormone responses of the body. In fact, many people become more aware of their specific hormone cycles by using these methods and I’ve worked with people who were able to identify hormone imbalances and problems through these methods. Statistically, couples who practice these methods also report happier relationships and lower divorce rates.
The book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, provides a good starting point for learning about these methods and it might also be helpful to talk to a Natural Family Planning instructor in your area if this is something you are considering.
Exercise and Breast Health
Exercise is important for beast health for several reasons. Exercise helps maintain a healthy weight and obesity has been linked to an increased risk of all cancers, including breast cancer.
Additionally, exercise increases circulation and Lymph flow which help the elimination of toxins in the body. Exercise helps encourage proper hormone production and function, which can help balance the presence of excess estrogen in the body.
Exercises like walking, light jogging, and bouncing on a trampoline or rebounder appear to be beneficial due to the lymph-stimulating activity they promote. Exercises like stretching, pilates, and weight training help improve hormone responses and lower cortisol, blood sugar and other factors which can affect hormones.
An exercise that is particularly touted for it’s Lymph and circulatory affects is the T-Tapp System, which is low-impact and very gentle on the muscles and joints. I’ve been trying this system lately for a review and I’ve been amazed by how much a simple 15-minute basic T-Tapp workout increases circulation and works the muscles, yet it doesn’t make me sore (supposedly from the lymph-draining aspect).
Kettlebells are another of my personal favorite ways to get an effective workout in a short amount of time.
Exercise has a host of other benefits besides breast health, so there is nothing to lose!
Lifestyle Factors and Breast Health
Other lifestyle factors have been correlated with an increased or decreased risk of breast cancer. Factors that are commonly associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer are:
- Breastfeeding each child for at least six months (exclusively) and preferably for a year
- Having a child before age 20
- Having more than one child
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Eating an antioxidant and Omega-3 rich diet
- Getting enough Vitamin D from sunlight or supplements
Lifestyle factors correlated with an increased risk of breast cancer:
- Exposure to chemicals, especially hormone-mimicking chemicals through contraceptives, foods, plastic, and chemicals
- Having first child after age 30 or not having children
- Being overweight
- Having multiple pregnancies but not breastfeeding
- Low Vitamin D levels
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Light exposure at night (decreases malatonin production- tips for optimizing sleep here)
How to Boost Breast Health
- Eat a healthy diet composed mostly of whole, real foods and avoid processed foods like grains, sugars, vegetable oils. Check out this recipe index for a list of healthy recipes sorted by topic.
- Drink plenty of filtered water (reverse osmosis will remove hormone disrupting chemicals) and herbal teas.
- Especially if you have deficiencies, consider supplements like Fermented Cod Liver Oil (Vitamins A, D and Omega-3s), Curcumin, Iodine, etc.
- Get a comfortable and non-restrictive bra. This is my favorite.
- Carefully research any medications, contraceptives, or other factors that can impact hormone levels and consider natural options.
- Exercise regularly, preferably with an exercise that supports lymph health.
- Don’t stress, sleep well, and work to naturally balance hormones (which will improve many other aspects of life as well!)
This is obviously a very complex subject with many factors that contribute. Above are a few of the ways I’ve chosen to support healthy breasts. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and certainly not a replacement for self-exams, screenings or advice from a medical professional.
So, I’m comfy in my coobie bra, sipping a cup of herbal tea and jumping on a mini-trampoline occasionally… do you do anything natural to help improve the health of your breasts? Share below!