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Plant-Based Diets For Breast Pain

Plant-based diets appear to offer relief from a variety of menstrual symptoms, including cramping, bloating, and breast pain (cyclical mastalgia).

April 24, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited

Rosolowich V, Saettler E, Szuck B, Lea RH, Levesque P, Weisberg F, Graham J, McLeod L, Rosolowich V; Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC). Mastalgia. J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2006 Jan;28(1):49-71; quiz 58-60, 72-4.

Jones DY. Influence of dietary fat on self-reported menstrual symptoms. Physiol Behav. 1987;40(4):483-7.

Hill P, Wynder F. Diet and prolactin release. Lancet. 1976 Oct 9;2(7989):806-7.

Smith CJ. Effect of a low-fat diet on hormone levels in women with cystic breast disease. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1987 Sep;79(3):607.

Chase C, Wells J, Eley S. Caffeine and breast pain: revisiting the connection. Nurs Womens Health. 2011 Aug-Sep;15(4):286-94. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-486X.2011.01649.x.

Sharma N, Gupta A, Jha PK, Rajput P. Mastalgia Cured! Randomized Trial Comparing Centchroman to Evening Primrose Oil. Breast J. 2012 Aug 15. doi: 10.1111/j.1524-4741.2012.01288.x.

Dennerstein L, Lehert P, Heinemann K. Global study of women's experiences of premenstrual symptoms and their effects on daily life. Menopause Int. 2011 Sep;17(3):88-95.

Goss PE, Li T, Theriault M, et al. Effects of dietary flaxseed in women with cyclical mastalgia. Breast Cancer Res Treat 2000;64:49.

Olawaiye A, Withiam-Leitch M, Danakas G, Kahn K. Mastalgia: a review of management. J Reprod Med. 2005 Dec;50(12):933-9.

Phipps WR, Martini MC, Lampe JW, Slavin JL, Kurzer MS. Effect of flax seed ingestion on the menstrual cycle. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1993 Nov;77(5):1215-9.

Boyd NF, McGuire V, Shannon P, Cousins M, Kriukov V, Mahoney L, Fish E, Lickley L, Lockwood G, Tritchler D. Effect of a low-fat high-carbohydrate diet on symptoms of cyclical mastopathy. Lancet. 1988 Jul 16;2(8603):128-32.

Rohan TE, Negassa A, Caan B, Chlebowski RT, Curb JD, Ginsberg M, Lane DS, Neuhouser ML, Shikany JM, Wassertheil-Smoller S, Page DL. Low-fat dietary pattern and risk of benign proliferative breast disease: a randomized, controlled dietary modification trial. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2008 Sep;1(4):275-84. Epub 2008 Jul 9.

Boyar AP, Rose DP, Wynder EL. Recommendations for the prevention of chronic disease: the application for breast disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988 Sep;48(3 Suppl):896-900.

Janiger O, Riffenburgh R, Kersh R. Cross cultural study of premenstrual symptoms. Psychosomatics. 1972 Jul-Aug;13(4):226-35.

Barnard ND, Scialli AR, Hurlock D, Bertron P. Diet and sex-hormone binding globulin, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual symptoms. Obstet Gynecol. 2000 Feb;95(2):245-50.

Watt-Boolsen S, Andersen AN, Blichert-Toft M. Serum prolactin and oestradiol levels in women with cyclical mastalgia. Horm Metab Res. 1981 Dec;13(12):700-2.

Mansel RE, Preece PE, Hughes LE. A double blind trial of the prolactin inhibitor bromocriptine in painful benign breast disease. Br J Surg. 1978 Oct;65(10):724-7.

Hill P, Garbaczewski L, Helman P, Huskisson J, Sporangisa E, Wynder EL. Diet, lifestyle, and menstrual activity. Am J Clin Nutr. 1980 Jun;33(6):1192-8.

Acknowledgements

Images thanks to David Lanham

Transcript

Breast pain accompanying ones period, called premenstrual mastalgia, was dismissed in the 70s as a ''merely an expression of psychoneurosis of women. They're just frustrated and unhappy because they haven't given their husbands children yet. Now we know what women always knew, breast pain is all too common, may be severe enough to interfere with usual daily activities, and its effect on quality of life is often underestimated. Though pain can be severe enough to interfere with usual daily activities, the cause and optimal treatment remain undefined. Approximately 60–70% of women experience some type of breast pain at some stage of their lives, and in 10–20% of cases, it is severe." Some breast tenderness during one's cycle is normal, but breast pain is not.

In many cases surgery was prescribed. Thankfully by 1999 we were evidently living an era of evidence-based surgery—what a concept—which behoves us all to justify the surgery we undertake, and so the profession stopped cutting of the breasts of women in pain. 

The hormone prolactin is considered to be a central factor, as women with cyclical breast pain were found to have elevated levels, and a prolactin inhibitor drug was found to be an effective treatment. The side effects, though, are so bad that some women couldn't even finish the study. There had to be better way.

Well, while up to 2/3's of Western women suffer from breast pain in their lifetimes, it apparently may affect as few as 5% in Asian cultures. Maybe it has something to do with diet. Women eating traditional plant-based diets all their lives, like rural Bantu African women have lower prolactin levels. How do we know the difference isn't just genetic? Well, when you take those women and feed them a Western diet, meat, butter, milk, eggs, bread and sugar for a few weeks, they experience a significant rise in prolactin, in fact the hormonal changes were comparable to those found in women with the menstrual irregularies more common in Western women.

What part of the Western diet was responsible, though--maybe it was the bread and sugar? To see if it was the meat, researchers took some New Yorkers and put them on a vegetarian diet for two weeks, and that alone brought their prolactin levels down suggesting that the removeal of meat and meat products from the diet can reduce the release of prolactin.

So, let's give it a try for breast pain. The first pilot study involved ten women with severe cyclical mastalgia, put on a low fat diet for 3 months—either vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian, and all ten women got better.

There was no control group, though, so part of their improvement may have just been the placebo effect, so a randomized controlled trial was undertaken. This Canadian research group had been carrying out a clinical trial of dietary fat reduction in patients with precancerous breast changes and they noted that that patients with cyclical breast problems frequently experienced striking relief of symptoms after reduction of dietary fat, so they randomized women into two groups; and again, a significant improvement in symptoms was found.

Since then, we learned that vegetarian women have fewer menstrual disturbances than nonvegetarian women, only about 5% of their cycles were anovulatory, meaning they failed to release an egg, compared to 15% of nonvegetarian menstrual cycles.  Those eating more plant-baed low fat diets may also experience significantly less bloating and compared to placebo, women with painful menstrual cramps placed on a vegan diet, experienced significant relief.

This was a so-called crossover study where they put meat-eating women on a plant-based diet for two cycles, and then switched them back to their regular diet with some placebo supplement, so you can show changes before and after and then back to baseline. The problem, is that several participants felt so much better that they refused to go back to their regular diet, thereby screwin' up the study.

Bottomline is that a plant-based diet may offer relief from breast pain, as well as significant reductions in menstrual pain duration, pain intensity, and duration of premenstrual symptoms related to concentration, behavioral change, and water retention.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Jonathan Hodgson.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

The spice saffron is one plant in particular that may help. See Saffron for the Treatment of PMS and Wake Up and Smell the Saffron. In my next video I'll cover another, in Flax Seeds For Breast Pain

Another reason meat consumption may interfere with ovulatory function is explained in my video Meat Hormones & Female Infertility.

The extraordinarily low rates of chronic disease among people eating traditional plant-based Bantu diets was one of the inspirations for Nathan Pritikin's work. See the series of videos that starts with Engineering a Cure.

More on the medical profession's traditional views on women in my video Plant-Based Bioidentical Hormones. And I have more than a hundred other videos on women's health.

For some more context, check out my associated blog posts: Plant-Based Diets for PsoriasisTreating Breast Pain with Diet,Treating Breast Pain with Flax Seeds, and How Probiotics Affect Mental Health

 If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Jessie

    This does not surprise me, since i have switched to a vegetarian lifestyle, that time of the month is pain free wish i knew this 12 years ago..Great video=)

  • Marie

    Thanks for sharing this video. This is a problem for me – glad to know I’m doing the right thing to help. I would love to know if anyone has any info on the safety of natural progesterone cream. Even though I do all the things suggested for PMS on this site: mostly dairy free (and meat), drink green tea daily, eat lots of flax, b12, b6, magnesium, even smell saffron everyday at least once :), if I don’t use progesterone cream too, I’m a mess! Anything I’ve missed?

  • Christine

    Since taking on a mostly raw vegetarian diet I find that my period surprises me with its arrival. Before, on a “junk-food vegetarian” diet – hey, potato chips are vegetarian, right? – I find I no longer have menstral cramps. None. Zip. And the cure was so elegant, so simple: Eat Plants.

  • Thea

    Sadly, my menstrual cycle problems, which feel pretty awful to me and which interfere in my life, have had no change since switching to a plant based diet 3 years ago. (sad, long sigh) I wonder if it has to do with me eating animals for the first 40 years of my life. My body may just be permanently messed up. (Acne never cleared up either.) I know from recent blood tests that I have certain hormone problems that diet has not cleared up.

    That doesn’t mean that I will stop eating healthy. This is my take-away: It means that we have to be careful (and I’m not saying the video wasn’t careful) when we tell people about plant based diets. Not everyone experiences the noticeable health benefits that the majority of people experience. Despite how it seems sometimes, a healthy diet is not magic for everyone. We just have to be careful when explaining healthy diets to people.

    Just sharing the thoughts I had after hearing this video. I am happy for the people who get significant benefits like pain reduction.

    • http://jolkapolkaskitchen.blogspot.com/ WholeFoodChomper

      Very good point, Thea.

    • Plantstrongdoc

      Thea,
      Great comment. A whole food plant based diet is not a cure for all ailments. Many of us have been eating the wrong foods for 30 or 40 years, so damage has been done. A lot of different diseases will not be cured, because you change your diet to a whole food plant based diet – simply because the disease has nothing to do with food, the damage is permanent or because biology is complex. On the other hand the body has a great capacity to heal, so no doubt that “wrong-food-induced-diseases” (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, inflammatory conditions etc) can improve, be reversed or even cured with a plant based diet. That said, a whole food plant based diet reduce the risk of acquiring diseases – heartattack, stroke, cancer, DM, hypertension etc, so it is not only a cure, but also an insurance.

      Another thing is that “real medicine” – pills – do not work on everybody – you are probably familiar with the term “number needed to treat” (NNT). NNT show how many patients you have to treat, to avoid an event (disease, death) in one patient. For some drugs it can be 100 – you have to treat 100 patients for one to benefit. Changing your diet has (probably) no sideeffects, so no harm done if it doesnt work.
      benefit! Changing your diet has (probably) no sideeffects.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Don-Matesz/1555993211 Don Matesz

      Lots of ways to eat a plant-based diet: high or low fat, high or low protein, raw or cooked, fruit-based, grain-based, no grains, high or low vegetables, and so on. Perhaps you have not yet found the proportions and application that you need to heal your condition. For example, I know people who need to avoid cooked grains to establish health. Perhaps if not tried yet a high raw Jenkins style ‘simian’ style diet would help you: fruits, vegetables, only those beans and grains edible raw (e.g. peas and corn), nuts, and seeds. Dr. Greger says a bit about Jenkins here:http://nutritionfacts.org/questions/dr-jenkins-and-plant-based-diets/

      • Thea

        donmatesz: Thanks for your reply. Interesting idea about eating the simian style diet. My mother always called me a little monkey. ;-) (Sorry it took so long for me to reply.)

    • Thea

      Thank you to everyone who replied. That was nice.

      Don Matesz: You could be right that I just haven’t found the right diet. Also, I am always the first to say that I have PLENTY I could do to improve the health level of my diet.

      That said, I’m already eating so much healthier than the vast majority of people in America, and I’m already eating the type of diet that the vast majority of people report great benefits from when they bother to switch. My diet is filled with home-cooked, whole plant food based foods, supplemented with B12 and D. (Not that I don’t ever eat white flour, sugar, or oil…) Also, I don’t believe we have enough science to say that a more specialized say raw diet would make any difference. Going to a raw diet would be very hard for me to do. For me to make the effort, I would have to believe that it would really help. I just don’t see it.

      But I do appreciate you taking the time to offer suggestions. This is the kind of thing that I let sit in the back of my brain for a while. I very well may reconsider at some point and follow your advice at some point in the future.

    • Maj0

      Did you concider fasting? Body works miracles when fasting. Try searching for details and give it a try if you can.

      You should also keep in mind that food isnt the only thing coming into our bodies. There are poisons everywhere in our environment and they can pass into our system even by a simple touch.

      A good example are estrogen mimicers in plastics, pesticides, …

      Just try increasing your green smoothie/vege jucie intake if you can’t do fasting.

      You can read a lot more about hormone disruptors on the internet.

      • Thea

        Maj0: the fasting idea is very interesting. I read the book The Pleasure Trap which talks about the benefits of fasting. I’ve done religious 24 hour fasts, but nothing more than that. It’s definitely something to think about.

        I no longer store or cook food in plastic. I don’t use pesticides or herbicides (other than vinegar) in my yard either, but of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m not exposed thanks to my neighbors or at parks.

        Thanks for the thoughts.

        • Cory

          Dr. Fuhrman wrote a book about fasting in the 90s. I’ve read a ton of books on the subject and I have found that his book is the most credible. If you have given any more thought about trying an extended fast definitely check out ”
          Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease”

          • Thea

            Thanks Cory, that’s really helpful. I have some issues with Dr. Fuhrman, but I’m a big believer in not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If this is a good book, then it is a good book not matter who wrote it. :-) Thanks again.

    • b00mer

      Perhaps the severity of your issues might be even worse if you didn’t follow the plant based diet? Who knows what kind of additional medications, surgeries, etc, you may have required by now if your diet were not as healing and health-promoting as it is now? I don’t know if that’s an uplifting or depressing thought, I certainly hope the former! All the best, and I hope someday you do find some relief.

      • Thea

        b00mer: Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll just go with “uplifting”. ;-) And I do try to console myself with similar thoughts. Thanks again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/darryl.roy.752 Darryl Roy

    Off-topic but interesting recent research: Not only do humans have evolutionary adaptations to high-starch diets (http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/v39/n10/abs/ng2123.html), but it appears in the course of domestication dogs adapted to eat starch as well (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v495/n7441/full/nature11837.html).

    • Thea

      Darryl: I haven’t followed your links, but I am aware of the relatively new study on dogs’ digestive systems in regards to starches. I find the study fascinating. It fits in so nicely with the theory that dogs evolved from hanging around human settlements and eating human trash/food discards.

      I don’t know if this is related to the study results or not, but I can say that my vegan dog is in great health. He seems to digest his food pretty well.

  • OutsideMom

    I switched to a plant-based diet on April 1 of this year. So I’ve been eating this way less than a month. I have had 3 children, and since my last child was born in 2010 I have gained back 20 pounds after not losing all of my baby weight, putting me 40 pounds over my pre-baby weight from before my 1st child. I’ve also noticed my cycles became shorter between periods (it used to be 28 days on the dot, and since he was born it was closer to ever 24-26 days) but my periods have been heavier and I’ve had greater mood swings throughout my cycle. I attributed some of this to nursing, but as nursing starts to taper off, my body should have re regulated itself.

    Not only have I lost 8 pounds since starting a plant-based diet, I also had an unexpected change relating to my menstrual cycle. When I started this diet, I had just finished bleeding and was about a week away from my normal ovulation time. I started my most recent period this week and marked it down on my calendar- it’s been a full 28 days since my last one! This hasn’t happened in years. Also, the bleeding is not as heavy and I did not experience any cramping or mood swings like I have in the past. I am just so amazed at how quickly my body has seen benefits to this diet beyond just the weight loss.

    • Thea

      OutsideMom, This is so inspirational! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryan.p.alton Ryan Alton

    Dr. Gregor, did you see this study yet? I was wondering if you did a video or article on; wanted to hear your take. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v496/n7446/full/nature11868.html

  • http://twitter.com/1stnewamy Amy Hale

    I’ve been vegetarian for years but it wasn’t until going mostly vegan and improving and increasing my vegetable intake AND cutting out refined sugar that I experienced amazing relief of menstrual cycle symptoms. I used to be very emotional during the premenstrual phase and sometimes have cramps and other uncomfortable things. Now I either have no symptoms or symptoms are so minor I can ignore them. My body no longer warns me of an upcoming menstrual cycle and I have to keep an eye on the calender.

  • Robin Everson

    This video does not load. I have tried several times over the past few days.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      Anyone else having a problem with this video playing?

  • Ann Van den Broeck

    Can you do a video about evening primrose oil?
    I use this and have a lot of benefit for it: better skin, regular periods, less tired

  • Rose

    This video surprised me somewhat. I am vegetarian since 20 years (I’m 38 now), with some fish and egg occasionally. I became vegetarian gradually. We never had much meet and I grew up without junk food, on a whole food, plant based diet with loads of raw veggies – only seasonal veggies and more veggies than fruits (I am European). Nevertheless, I always had premenstrual breast pain – quite a strong one. In fact, it helped me to track and predict my cycle with a 100% accuracy.
    Nevertheless, interesting content! Thanks.