How Diet Can Help Relieve Breast Pain

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Treating Breast Pain with Diet

As I explore in my video Plant-Based Diets For Breast Pain, eating healthy appears to offer relief from a variety of menstrual symptoms, including cramping, bloating, and breast pain.

Breast pain accompanying one’s period, called cyclical mastalgia, was dismissed in the 70s as ”merely an expression of psychoneurosis.” Women with breast pain were labeled “frustrated unhappy nulliparae,” meaning they were just upset that they hadn’t given their husbands children yet.

Now we know what women always knew, breast pain is all too common, and its effect on quality of life is underestimated. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of women experience some type of breast pain at some stage of their lives, and in 10 to 20 percent 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 the 21st century the medical community had switched course. “We live in an era of evidence-based surgery,” read a 1999 review, “which behooves us all to justify the surgery we undertake.” What a concept! So the profession stopped cutting off the breasts of women in pain.

The hormone prolactin is considered to be a central factor, as women with cyclical breast pain have elevated levels, and a prolactin inhibitor drug was found to be an effective treatment. The side effects of the drug are so bad, though, that some women are unable to stay on it. There had to be better way.

Well, while up to two-thirds of Western women suffer from breast pain in their lifetimes, it apparently may affect as few as 1 in 6 women in Asian countries. Researchers suspected it might have to do with their lower fat diet. For example, women eating traditional plant-based diets all their lives, like rural Bantu African women, have lower prolactin levels. Their extraordinarily low rates of chronic disease in general were actually one of the inspirations for Nathan Pritikin’s work (see the series of videos that starts with Engineering a Cure).

How do we know these differences between countries aren’t just genetic? Well, when researchers fed Bantu women a Western diet—meat, butter, milk, eggs, bread and sugar—for a few weeks, they experienced a significant rise in prolactin. Their hormonal changes on a Westernized diet were comparable to those found in Western women with menstrual irregularities.

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 meat was the culprit. So researchers decided to give it a try for breast pain.

The first pilot study involved ten women with severe cyclical mastalgia. They were put on a more plant-based low fat diet for three months and all ten women got better. There was no control group, though, so part of their improvement may have just been the placebo effect. Thus a randomized controlled trial was undertaken.

A 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 half the women into a lower fat group. Again, a significant improvement in symptoms was found.

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

Researchers designed a “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 to show changes before and after dietary improvement, and then back at baseline. The problem the researchers discovered, though, is that several participants felt so much better that they refused to go back to their regular diet, violating the study protocols.

Bottom line, the researchers concluded 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 [bloating].”

Some plants may work better than others. See Saffron for the Treatment of PMS and Wake Up and Smell the Saffron, as well as the follow-up video Flax Seeds For Breast Pain.

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

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.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

10 responses to “Treating Breast Pain with Diet

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  1. When I eat celery my mouth and throat experience low-grade numbness. It is noticeable and worrisome and others have reported it as well. I am not allergic to celery. Am concerned that it is causing numbness in GI tract – how would one know?, and overtime will damage the GI tract. I hear that eugenol is the chemical in celery that does this. Has anyone researched this?

  2. Does anyone know if raisins sold in US stores comes from green or red grapes? I have read that thompson raisins, the most traditional type, come from green and just turn dark as they are dried. I am curious for several reasons, one of which is i’d like to boost my resveratrol consumption but it seems that that is in red grapes and not green grapes, hence, I’d like to find a source of raisins derived from red grapes.

      1. I’ve read conflicting evidence that “flame” raisins actually come from red grapes. I hope someone, maybe Dr. G, can set the record straight since red grapes seem to pack a bigger bang for the buck, in regards to resveratol, and flame raisins would fill the gap when red grapes are out of season.

    1. This is a myth. Saturated fat and cholesterol are indeed the perpetrators in heart disease.
      From the National Academy of Science:

      “Saturated fatty acids are synthesized by the body to provide an adequate level needed for their physiological and structural functions; they have no known role in preventing chronic diseases. Therefore, neither an AI nor RDA is set for saturated fatty acids. There is a positive linear trend between total saturated fatty acid intake and total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentration and increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). A UL is not set for saturated fatty acids because any incremental increase in saturated fatty acid intake increases CHD risk”

      “The saturated fatty acids, in contrast to cis mono or polyunsaturated fatty acids, have a unique property in that they suppress the expression of LDL receptors (Spady et al., 1993). Through this action, dietary saturated fatty acids raise serum LDL cholesterol concentrations (Mustad et al., 1997).”

      From the editor in chief of the American Journal of Cardiology.

      “As shown in Figure 1, most of the risk factors do not in themselves cause atherosclerosis [heart disease]…The atherosclerotic risk factors showing that the only factor required to cause atherosclerosis is cholesterol.”

  3. I am currently vegan … so is Bill Clinton. In a video interview of him he says he eats salmon once a week to keep muscle mass. Good idea or no?

    1. keith: I would be hard pressed to call someone who eats salmon once a week a vegan. But I understand what you are saying.

      Toxins gave you the short and sweet answer. In case you need a little more info, here is something to consider: Not only do we know that you can get all the essential amino acids (i.e., protein) you need from plant foods, but some of the most impressive body builders and athletes are (real) vegans who do just that. In other words, they not only “keep muscle mass”, but they gain just fine on a vegan diet. If you are interested in learning more about those people, I included additional info below. So, as you can see, poor Clinton, who has come so far!, still has a ways to go before he understands basic nutrition.

      Before I give the info on vegan athletes, I also wanted to point you to the following page which explains protein needs in wonderful detail. After reading this page, I suspect you will feel very comfortable about your vegan diet and your muscles:

      (from meatout mondays)
      Vegan Bodybuilders Dominate Texas Competition

      The Plant Built ( team rolled into this year’s drug-free, steroid-free Naturally Fit Super Show competition in Austin, TX, and walked away with more trophies than even they could carry.

      The Plant Built team of 15 vegan bodybuilders competed in seven divisions, taking first place in all but two. They also took several 2nd and 3rd place wins.

      For More Info:

      When Robert Cheeke started in 2002, being the only vegan athlete he knew of, he may not have imagined that the website would quickly grow to have thousands of members. Robert says, “We’re discovering new vegan athletes all the time, from professional and elite levels… to weekend warriors and everyone in between.”

      For More Info:
      There was that other guy who just did a world record in weight lifting. “Congratulations to Strongman Patrik Baboumian who yesterday took a ten metre walk carrying more than half a tonne on his shoulders, more than anyone has ever done before. After smashing the world record the Strongman let out a roar of ‘Vegan Power’…” For more info:

      Here’s another site that I like:

      I found this story on the above site: “Pat Reeves has set a new world powerlifting record at the WDFPA World Single Lift Championships. The 66 year old lifter, who has been vegan for 46 years, lifted 94 kg to set a record for the under 50.5kg weight class while competing in France in June 2012. The lift was more than 1.85 times her bodyweight, which is exceptional for her division. Pat is now officially the oldest competing weightlifter in Europe.”

      Hope you find this helpful.

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