“I have to wear three bras to go for a run – my breasts have got so big and sore!” she cried as she left a message on my phone. “They’ve never been this big in my life and I hate how it’s uncomfortable to run. It’s really impacting on training my clients.”
My personal trainer friend was frustrated. How this bought back memories for me. When my own breast size doubled as I reached my late 40s and early 50s, I was mystified. Nobody had told me about the effect of changing hormones on my breast tissue. It seems nobody had told my friend either.
Whilst we all need to have breast checks as we move through menopause, because the risk of breast cancer increases, for those of you with heavy, tender, lumpy breasts, this is a condition called Fibrocystic Breasts. It occurs when tiny, fluid-filled sacs form in the milk-producing glands becoming swollen and a bit hard and tender. Women may notice this in post-menopause too, when lowering oestrogen and progesterone impact on lymphatic vessels, which lose some of their elasticity. I was the same. And according to 2016 research out of Sweden, which explored the breast density of post-menopause women, dense breast tissue in postmenopausal women is associated with a pro-inflammatory microenvironment. (Abrahamsson, Rzepecka et al, 2016).
Having tight, sore boobs is uncomfortable to say the least. Like many women I spent hundreds of dollars on new bra’s and exercised and ate well, but still my breast size increased and so did the pain.
It wasn’t until I learnt that our breast tissue is full of oestrogen receptors as well as lymphatic vessels, that I began to understand that by giving up a few foods, the lumpy breasts resolve.
As we move into menopause, the lymphatic vessels are losing elasticity. This is a normal part of our ageing when oestrogen levels start to decline.
The combination of changing lymphatic vessels and the receptiveness of breast tissue for excess oestrogen can contribute to swelling, pain and a condition, which some of you have heard me talk about before, called ‘oestrogen dominance.’
Our breast tissue is known to have local oestrogen production and storage. They also have a high number of oestrogen receptors.
And whilst, our ovarian production of oestrogen declines during menopause, our breasts may become responsive to the storage of xeno-oestrogens – this is the term given to environmental oestrogens and excess oestrogens in certain foods and medications.
When fat cells, including breast tissue cells, store excess oestrogens, this may lead to women becoming oestrogen dominant. As such, breast tissue feels swollen and sore. For those who are on breast cancer treatments as Lyndie was, understanding oestrogen dominance is important.
What happens when you are oestrogen dominant?
Perhaps the most important consideration of oestrogen dominance as we move through menopause, is that the extra storage of oestrogen in tissues causes the opposing hormone, progesterone to lower. Both oestrogen and progesterone are ideally balanced as your reproductive hormones decline at this stage of life. When oestrogen is stored in fat cells, inlcuding breast tissue, then it becomes the dominant hormone compared to it’s opposing hormone, called progesterone.
If progesterone levels are low compared to oestrogen (because there is excess fat cell storage of oestrogen), the consequence of lowered progesterone is that cell membrane function may become impaired. If you feel bloated, tight, puffy and your breasts are sore, heavy and huge, then welcome to oestrogen dominance and lowered levels of progesterone.
Low levels of progesterone, causes sodium and water retention in cells and tissues. In turn, this can increase your blood pressure too.
So, if you feel that your breasts are tight and swollen and you’ve gone up a bra size or three as I did, then please read on. It’s what I needed to know when it happened to me!
When sodium is retained, so is water.
The ‘puffiness’, bloating and swelling you are experiencing is water retention and it’s not good for those women already at risk of high blood pressure. Other symptoms of oestrogen dominance also start to be felt – sore and tender breasts, mood disturbances, low motivation, irritability and of course, weight gain, especially around the middle.
Sodium retention in cells causes an imbalance of fluid movement in and out of cells.
This, combined with increased plasma volume, combine to influence an increase in your blood pressure. If you are also not sleeping, putting on weight or feeling stressed or anxious then you may also increase your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) further.
This is why I’m always telling women to get their blood pressure checked regularly throughout menopause and if there is a family history of heart disease, then it is imperative that you manage your oestrogen dominance during your menopause transition.
There is plenty of medical evidence available to remind us that post-menopause heart disease is one of the most frequent clinical conditions in women as they get older. It’s why I always say in my Masterclass on Menopause (now online for you HERE), ‘Menopause isn’t ‘just’ about hot flushes’!
My 3 top strategies to relieve your tight, tender breasts:
- Reduce animal foods in your diet. Many of these are high in oestrogen and have a higher acidic load, which places strain on kidneys. This is measured as PRAL or Potential Renal Acid Load. It’s not forever, but changing your diet to mainly plant-based helps to ‘break the circuit’ of your oestrogen dominance. This is because you are reducing saturated fats, which breast tissue loves to store.
2. Restore your liver health. As thousands of women on the MyMT™ programmes know, I have a big focus on liver health and share with them, the scientific evidence on how to actually clear the liver. Your liver is the main organ which helps to clear excess oestrogenic compounds as well as cholesterol, so certain foods are evidenced to help with this detoxification process. Foods include oats, broccoli or broccolini, cauliflower and other foods.
- Improve lymphatic drainage. Your lymphatic system is an important toxin-removal system and during menopause, your lymphatic vessels lose some of their elasticity. A healthy lymphatic system as you age means that you move fluid in and out of cells more easily and you help your blood pressure too. This is why stretching, breathing and some physical activity is important for you in menopause – swimming is my activity of choice when it comes to lymphatic exercise. If you don’t feel confident with exercise or you have let it go over the years because other things have gotten in the way, then explore my 12 week exercise programme called Rebuild My Fitness – it’s perfect for you to start focusing on becoming more active again in your 50s and beyond.
As far back as the 1970’s, Dr John Lee, a medical Doctor from California, was inspired to explore the role of progesterone in peri-menopause after noticing that many of his female patients were intolerant to the use of oestrogen replacement therapy [HRT].
Like a few other doctors and endocrinologists at this time, Dr Lee believed that the distressing symptoms that so many women experienced during menopause were in fact NOT due to the low oestrogen levels, which is a natural occurrence during menopause, but in fact, due to higher than normal amounts of oestrogen present in the body fat tissues.
He realised that women with a pre-disposition to put on weight, had higher levels of oestrogen circulating in their blood stream and with new research into obesity, he knew that fat cells are a receptor or storage area for oestrogen too. This includes breast tissue. Because oestrogen, like other hormones, works in harmony with an opposing hormone, Dr Lee, began to explore the role of oestrogen’s opposing hormone, called progesterone. I’m so pleased that he did.
Stay well where-ever you are in the world.
- Abrahamsson A, Rzepecka A, Romu T, Borga M, Leinhard OD, Lundberg P, Kihlberg J, Dabrosin C. (2016). Dense breast tissue in postmenopausal women is associated with a pro-inflammatory microenvironment in vivo. Oncoimmunology. 5(10):e1229723. doi: 10.1080/2162402X.2016.1229723. PMID: 27853653; PMCID: PMC5087296.
- Monteiro R, Teixeira D, Calhau C. Estrogen signaling in metabolic inflammation. (2014). Mediators Inflamm. 615917. doi: 10.1155/2014/615917. Epub 2014 Oct 23. PMID: 25400333; PMCID: PMC4226184.
- Yaghjyan L, Colditz GA. (2011). Estrogens in the breast tissue: a systematic review. Cancer Causes Control. 22(4):529-40. doi: 10.1007/s10552-011-9729-4. Epub 2011 Feb 1. PMID: 2128680