Just as the moon has phases, so breast discomfort waxes and wanes. Here are some suggestions for easing the discomfort.
What's causing the discomfort?
The uterus goes through a cycle of changes each month and so do the breasts. Shifting levels of hormones—mainly oestrogen and progesterone—trigger tissue growth and fluid retention in the breasts as the milk glands get ready for a potential pregnancy.
This can lead to pain and may also cause lumps to form. Cyclical breast tenderness was once called fibrocystic breast disease but is now recognised as just a side-effect of menstruation. Almost half of women under 50 experience it.
Breast tenderness tends to be most noticeable just before menstruation. It can also be related to the taking of certain drugs, such as the stomach acid suppressant, cimetidine (Tagamet).
Try a soothing soap
When you’re in the shower, soap your breasts and gently massage them from the centre of your chest out towards your armpits.
This improves blood circulation and the drainage of lymphatic fluid, the clear fluid that carries infection-fighting substances around your body.
Take cold comfort
Wrap a towel around a bag of ice cubes or frozen peas and apply it to each breast for about 10 minutes.
The cold-pack treatment reduces swelling and dulls the pain.
Consider taking supplements
Dandelion is a natural diuretic. Take the herb in capsule form, or make a tea using powdered dandelion root, available as sachets from health-food stores or online. Infuse a tea bag in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes and drink 2 cups a day, an hour after main meals.
Try evening primrose oil, a traditional herbal remedy for premenstrual symptoms. It contains an essential fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) that may help to balance a woman’s hormones and appears to ease cyclical breast tenderness. Take 1000mg of the oil in soft capsule form three times a day during the last ten days of the menstrual cycle. Take it with meals to enhance absorption.
Vitamins E and B6 may also work together to help prevent breast pain. Try 500mg (800 IU) of vitamin E a day, together with 50mg of B6. While you won’t be able to meet these goals with food alone, you can increase your dietary intake of these helpful vitamins by eating wheatgerm, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and whole grains for more vitamin E, and avocados, fish, poultry, lean meats, bananas and spinach for B6.
Get a new lift
Consider wearing a support bra instead of an underwired bra when your breasts are tender. You may want to wear a soft support bra to bed to reduce night-time jostling. When you try on a new bra, make sure it cups your breasts without pinching.
Once you buy new, more comfortable bras, throw away the old, out of shape ones that don’t provide your breasts with proper support anymore.
Look at food solutions
Eat more soya beans and other soya-based foods. Population studies have shown that in traditional Asian cultures where people consume a lot of soya, women have fewer oestrogen-related problems such as breast pain and menopause symptoms.
Soya contains hormone-like compounds called phytoestrogens that can influence hormonal fluctuations related to menstruation and menopause. Try some soya-based meat substitutes, or add tofu to your meals. Soya milk is another excellent source; try it on breakfast cereals or in milkshakes.
Consume plenty of fibre, such as fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses—kidney beans and lentils, for example—and whole grains. One US study found that women on a higher-fibre diet excreted more oestrogen.
Aim to get fewer than 30 per cent of your calories from fat. Women who live in cultures where low-fat diets are the norm generally have a lower incidence of breast pain.
Cut back your intake of hydrogenated oils, found in margarine, biscuits, manufactured pies and snack foods. When you eat these oils, your body loses some of its ability to convert the fatty acids in your diet (essential to your health) into GLA—a necessary link in a chain reaction that prevents breast tissue from becoming painful.
Reduce your consumption of methylxanthine. "Methyl what?", you may ask. Methylxanthine is the unfamiliar name of a group of stimulants that includes caffeine and theobromine—found in coffee and chocolate respectively. It’s present in many other common foods and drinks, too, including colas, tea, wine, beer, bananas, cheese, peanut butter, mushrooms and pickles. Most women who suffer from painful lumps on a cyclical basis will improve if they cut right down on, or eliminate, foods that are high in this compound.
Go easy on the salt, and watch your intake of sodium from tinned soups and other processed and packaged foods. Sodium increases water retention, which causes your breasts to swell. Be especially careful to keep your salt consumption right down during the two weeks before your period.
Other ways to improve hormone harmony
To help your hormones into a more breast-friendly balance, try a natural progesterone cream. Although these creams are primarily recommended for PMS and menopause symptoms, you may find them helpful. Rub it into your skin every day, following the label directions.
If you take contraceptive pills or hormone replacement therapy (HRT), then talk to your doctor about altering your prescription. A relatively minor dosage adjustment might help.
Exercise vigorously for 30 minutes at least three times a week, especially during the week before your period. Exercise decreases the stress hormones in your body. And that is significant because those hormones play a role in causing breast pain. Exercise also helps to reduce fluids in your body while increasing levels of feel-good chemicals in your brain.
Make regular, sacrosanct time for yourself and practise meditation, breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques that can reduce stress hormones.
Should I call the doctor?
If you’re taking any prescription medication, tell your doctor about any breast pain or tenderness, because it could be related to that drug. Other breast changes should be reported as well, especially any lump in your breast or under your arm. Soft lumps are usually the result of a build-up of fluid, but if a lump is more firm and round, your doctor may want to refer you for a biopsy to make sure it is noncancerous.
Your doctor can help you to identify "normal" lumpiness and distinguish this from lumps that should be tested. Even if you have come to expect breast pain associated with your period, tell your doctor if the pain becomes severe or if you notice discharge or blood from the nipple.