Do your breasts hurt? You could blame these three lifestyle factors

Too many of us have stories of doctors not believing our pain, years spent being misdiagnosed, and struggles in accessing the care we need (from exorbitant costs to previous intimidating appointments). Often, health care obstacles are directly tied to medicine’s gender bias, as well as stigmas relating to our race, ethnicity, sexuality, non-binary gender identity, age, and income. In our series Pain Today, we are highlighting these stories through personal and reported essays, hoping to empower each other to advocate for our health in a way that much of the medical community does not.

Ever since I was in the seventh grade, my D-cup breasts have hurt. I often found it hard to find a comfortable bra without having the straps dig into my shoulders, and had trouble sleeping throughout the night. But while it was extremely frustrating to deal with painfully throbbing breasts every single month the week before my period, it was even more frustrating (and embarrassing!) to be one of the few girls in middle school who looked like a full-grown woman.

Unfortunately, birth control wasn’t an option to curb the pain. Not only did my breasts grow a cup larger and feel like swollen, lumpy rocks when I first took the pill in high school, but my new breast size also inflicted pain in my back, which made sitting in hard plastic chairs or running laps during gym class feel almost impossible. So I did the next best option, and got off of it.

One day in college, I had to schedule an emergency appointment with my OB/GYN. I was experiencing an unbearable amount of pain in my left breast, which made me want to burst into tears. I automatically thought I had breast cancer, but my doctor assured me that the pain was being cause by PMS-related hormones. While I was hoping for a remedy, all I left with was a pamphlet of how to give myself a breast exam and the embarrassing feeling of scheduling an emergency OB/GYN appointment when there was nothing wrong with me.  

However, the pain never went away. Every month since that appointment, I noticed my breasts would undergo a painful cycle the week before my period: They would grow in size, throb, and hurt like swollen melons. While I tried to cope by assuring myself that it was just that time of the month again, I came to accept that this was just how my life was going to be, and there was nothing I could do about it.

But enough is enough. Recently, I decided to connect with some experts to figure out exactly why most breasts hurt and to see if I’m the only one who was experiencing this issue. The verdict? I’m not alone.

What causes breast pain?

According to Dr. Paulmi Guha, MD, when breasts grow and hurt during menstruation, it’s called “cyclical” breast pain. This recurring discomfort is “not usually caused by breast cancer or other serious breast problems,” but instead by hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle. “This can cause pain in both breasts several days before the menstrual period begins,” she says. 

John Hopkins Medicine, claims that hormonal changes in the body due to the menstrual cycle are among the most common reasons why breast tenderness occurs in the first place. But according to Dr. Kristine Blanche, who specializes in breast thermography treatments at her practice, Integrative Healing Center, it doesn’t necessarily mean this recurring pain is normal. 

“PMS symptoms and [fibrocystic breast aka breasts with benign fluid-like cysts may not be] healthy," she explains. "They [can be a] sign from your body that your hormones are out of balance.

Why exactly do hormones get out of wack in the first place? Well, according to Dr. Constance M. Chen, a board-certified plastic surgeon and breast reconstruction specialist, your diet could be to blame. For instance, carbs, like sugary white breads, can “lead to fluid retention in the breasts,” while “caffeine can make breasts knotty and painful, too,” she says. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that medications, such as antidepressants, cardiovascular agents, and antibiotics, can also contribute to breast pain, according to Chen.  

How to alleviate breast pain

If you’re experiencing breast pain, don’t worry. There are ways to alleviate this discomfort—and it all has to do with your lifestyle. “Maintaining healthy breasts is similar to maintaining a generally healthy life…Doing daily exercise, and staying away from unhealthy habits, like smoking and excessive drinking can all contribute to healthier breasts,” says Dr. Janelle Luk of Generation Next Fertility, a fertility specialist and OB/GYN of 14 years. 

Dr. Kate Denniston, a licensed naturopathic doctor, also suggests incorporating certain foods in your diet to help balance your hormones. “Foods rich in magnesium (pumpkin seeds, spinach, sesame seeds) can aid in hormone modulation by speeding up an enzyme called Catechol-O-methyltransferase, which helps to detoxify excess hormones. B vitamins are needed for methylation in liver processing,” she says. She also suggests eating foods rich in a compound that helps regulate your body’s hormone levels called Phytoestrogens, such as flax seeds, lentils, chickpeas, cabbage, and tempeh. I’ve personally experienced that a healthier diet does affect my breast pain. This is why I’ve mostly cut out dairy, which tends to inflame me.

Another thing you should keep an eye out for is chemicals in your food.

"Bisphenol A, otherwise known as BPA, and other chemicals found in plastics have been known to disrupt hormones in the body, which can worsen breast tenderness. Chemicals like pesticides and herbicides can bind to our estrogen receptors and act like estrogens in the body, which can cause an exaggerated estrogen effect on tissues [and make breast feel tender], explains Dr. Denniston.

So aside from changing your diet and staying away from harmful chemicals, is there anything else you can do to keep your breasts healthy? “Scheduling yearly exams and following up with your doctor for guidelines on mammograms is also advised,” Dr. Janelle Luk suggests. If you can, schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN and inform them of all of your symptoms. If you’re experiencing cyclical breast pain, remember that you don’t have to go through this alone or be in constant pain because you believe it’s “normal.”

After changing my diet recently, my breast have felt better. I’ve cut out dairy, gluten, processed foods, added sugar, alcohol, and most meats and instead, I’m supplementing with whole foods, fresh produce and a well-balance plant-based diet. While I can’t do this forever, I’m going to try my best to eat as clean as possible for the betterment of my breasts.