Before getting your period, do you experience changes in the texture, fullness and sensation in your breasts? You are experiencing something called cyclical fibrocystic breast changes, a very common benign breast condition also called cystic mastitis or mammary dysplasia. Women with fibrocystic changes have excessively ‘lumpy’ breasts and often experience tenderness or even pain at different times during their cycles. These fibrocystic changes are most pronounced in women ages 20-50, and usually resolve after menopause. But why does it happen? And how can you make it stop?
The cause of fibrocystic changes is not fully understood, but the prevalent research suggests hormone imbalances play a role – either an increased ratio of estrogen to progesterone, or an increased production of prolactin have shown a correlation. Conventionally, fibrocystic changes are treated with oral birth control pills, diuretics during the premenstrual period, or danazol (a synthetic form of testosterone). But there are several dietary interventions and nutritional supplements that can have a major impact.
There is one single dietary factor that has been very strongly linked to fibrocystic breast changes – in fact, avoiding this one dietary item has been shown to reduce up to 88% of cyclical pain and fullness in women with this condition. Want to know what it is?
It’s caffeine (and other ‘methylxanthines’).
Methylxanthines (like caffeine, theophylline and theobromine) are nutrients found in coffee, tea, cola and chocolate, and some medications and have a huge impact on the texture and pain associated with fibrocystis breast changes. In the body, these compounds inhibit an enzyme called phosphodiesterase, which in turn allows compounds called cyclic AMP and cyclic GMP to accumulate in breast tissue. In studies, strict avoidance of foods containing methylxanthines has shown an improvement or complete resolution of fibrocystic breast changes after 1-6 months in 65-88% of patients(2). In one particular study, 91% of patients saw complete resolution of breast nodules. That’s a major improvement! However, of women who merely decreased their intake (to less than 50% of previous), only 1 of 27 saw complete resolution.
For most women, re-introduction of methylxanthines after the study was completed caused reoccurrence of the fibrocystic breast changes. But the study didn’t address the underlying hormone imbalances that also trigger the condition. In my naturopathic practice, I’m always very comprehensive in my testing and investigation of any health condition. When I see patients with cyclical breast tenderness/fullness/lumpiness, I always address the hormone balance naturally in addition to suggesting they cut back on the caffeine, and altering other dietary practices like healthy fat intake.
If you experience pre-menstrual breast changes, you should definitely have your functional medicine doctor address underlying hormone imbalance – but try cutting out the methylxanthines. You can definitely do without monthly breast tenderness!