Does anyone else feel a little embarrassed talking about breasts? When we discuss these body parts, it feels different than talking about an arm. Or a leg. Or a liver. I think it is because there is an association between women’s breasts and sexuality, and good looking breasts are considered a mark of sexual attractiveness that nice arms and toes just can’t match. I am sure that Sigmund Freud could give us lots of reasons why this is so, but regardless, breasts get a lot of attention, and not all of that attention is focused on health. In fact, some women are reluctant to discuss breast health for these reasons.
Breasts are sophisticated organs (mammary glands) that secrete milk after pregnancy to feed babies. This process is nothing short of miraculous. Did you know that the mother of a premature baby has higher levels of healthy fat in her breast milk in order to help her underweight child build up more insulating fat to be healthy? And when the baby becomes healthier and more normal-sized, the milk adjusts again to be just what the baby needs at each growth stage.
Breasts are highly sensitive to hormones and hormonal fluctuations. This level of complexity means that there are more places where the system can break down and problems develop. There are two breast diseases about which I am frequently asked: fibrocystic breast disease and breast cancer.
Fibrocystic Breast Changes
In a perfect world, breast tissue should be supple and smooth. However, that is rarely the case. Many women have nodules or lumpy areas in the breast tissue, or their breast tissue becomes more uneven prior to the start of their menstrual cycle. Most women have a little bit of uneven tone, but when the lumps become bigger and/or painful, they are diagnosed with fibrocystic breast disease. Fibrocystic breast changes affects over 50% of women in their middle to late reproductive years. It is often associated with hormone fluctuations, age, stress, and even smoking. This is not a malignant (cancerous) condition, but it can be quite unpleasant as fibrocystic breasts can be physically and emotionally painful. It is important to get any lumps checked out to make sure the lumps are indeed fibrocystic changes.
Iodine Can Help Relieve Fibrocystic Breasts
While many people think of iodine as the go-to mineral for thyroid health, it is also very beneficial for fibrocystic breasts. A review of several human clinical trials involving different forms of iodine supplementation for fibrocystic breasts found that molecular iodine was the most beneficial. Women receiving molecular iodine (0.08 mg/kg) had over a 70% clinical improvement, which meant significantly less pain and fibrosis (lumps). A separate study using 0.07 to 0.09 mg/kg of molecular iodine had similar results, with 65% of patients experiencing reductions in pain and fibrosis. Many integrative practitioners use a dose of 6.25 to 12.5 mg for fibrocystic breast disease, generally in a formula with molecular iodine and other forms of iodine (ie, potassium iodide) as well.
Sometimes women have breast pain associated with their menstrual cycle that is not fibrocystic breast disease (FBD). The call this cyclic mastalgia, and it can occur with FBD or on its own. A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical study investigated the effects of 3 different iodine dosages and their effect on breast pain. After 3 months of supplementation with 3 mg of iodine per day, 25% of the patients had reductions in cyclical breast pain, tenderness, and nodularity. In the 6 mg per day group, over 50% of the patients experienced the same symptom relief. All groups (1.5 mg, 3 mg and 6 mg) experienced significant pain reduction, with the 6 mg group having the greatest benefit.
Diindolylmethane or DIM
It has long been known that eating cruciferous vegetables (the cabbage family—broccoli, Brussels’ sprouts, bok choy, etc) have great benefits for hormonal health in general and breast health in particular. One reason is because these vegetables contain a nutrient called indole-3 carbinole that your body converts into an incredibly potent hormone manager. After it is chewed and mixed with stomach acid, it converts to diindolylmethane, or DIM. As a supplement, DIM does not raise OR lower estrogen levels. Its function is to keep estrogen in its safest form. Keeping estrogen in its beneficial form helps all diseases that are triggered by estrogenic activity, including FBD and most forms of breast cancer.
Our bodies are bombarded by estrogens. Not only do we make our own estrogen, we are exposed to chemicals in the environment that are estrogen look-alikes called xenoestrogens. One of these is bisphenyl-A or BPA. You may have heard that you should look for BPA-free plastics in your water bottles, but you may not know why. BPA is a xenoestrogen that stimulates several negative aspects of breast cell growth because these hormonally-sensitive cells think BPA is a real hormone. That is why exposure is linked to breast cancer.
The only DIM with human studies is called BioResponse or BR DIM, and many women would benefit from having more DIM on board, both to help problems that already exist and to prevent problems in the future. Unfortunately, you’d have to eat two pounds of raw broccoli to get the clinically-studied dose of DIM into your body. That is one reason why supplementation can be much more effective.
The good news is that fewer women are dying of breast cancer, but the bad news is that more women are developing breast cancer. This is one disease in which nutrients can play a powerful role with both prevention and recovery.
Vitamin D & Breast Cancer
You may have heard that you absorb vitamin D from sunlight, and that is not exactly correct. Cells in your skin called melanocytes make vitamin D. The sunlight flips the switch, and the cells go into action to make this important nutrient. If we carry extra weight, our ability to make vitamin D is reduced. As we age, we also produce significantly less vitamin D that we did in our youth. There are also drugs and sunscreens that interfere with vitamin D production. Is it any wonder that we see more and more people with suboptimal levels of vitamin D?
Low vitamin D status is a risk factor for breast cancer. A meta-analysis performed on vitamin D levels demonstrated an inverse relationship between vitamin D intake and the risk of developing breast cancer. The researchers also found that the participants in the highest category of circulating vitamin D had a 45% reduction in breast cancer risk when compared to those with the lowest vitamin D levels.
In a pooled analysis of 11 studies, the authors found that a serum vitamin D level of 47 ng/mL could reduce breast cancer risk by 50%. I am not aware of any drug that can so significantly reduce breast cancer risk.
In yet another study of 214 women with newly diagnosed breast cancer and matched controls, vitamin D levels below 30 ng/mL were shown to having a 2.3 to 2.5 times increased risk of breast cancer.
Although risk for breast cancer increases with age, pre-menopausal women have need for concern as well. A study looking at women younger than 53 years old found that participants who had serum vitamin D levels > 27 ng/mL had a 40% reduction in their risk of developing breast cancer.
Lastly, a meta-analysis looking at 22 observational studies found that total and supplemental vitamin D intake were both inversely associated with breast cancer. Vitamin D deficiency was also found to be directly related to breast cancer development.
Curcumin for Breast Cancer Support
The research on curcumin is exploding. There are now over 13,500 studies on curcumin listed on the electronic database of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called PubMed. And much of that research is looking at curcumins ability to prevent cancer, and to promote recovery from cancer.
In a study of 14 patients with advanced or metastatic breast cancer, researchers examined the use of the chemotherapy drug docetaxel and oral curcumin supplementation. Patients received escalating doses of curcumin (up to 8 grams per day), in addition to a standard docetaxel dose. The researchers found a decrease of 20-30% of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) over the study period. VEGF is a protein that encourage angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels. The tumor marker CEA also decreased significantly over the treatment period. These are important indicators that the cancer’s progression is slowing.
In another study, curcumin was shown to reduce radiation dermatitis in a trial involving 30 breast cancer patients. Patients were randomized and received 2 grams of curcumin three times per daily. After week 5, the curcumin group experienced a reduction in severity of radiation dermatitis. The curcumin group also experienced a huge reduction in the percentage of patients experiencing moist desquamation - 28.6% versus 87.5% in the placebo group. The curcumin group also experienced less pain than the placebo group.
Many animal studies have examined curcumin’s ability to reduce tumor size and proliferation, and to prevent cancers. In an animal model of human breast cancer, curcumin supplementation reduced the tumor size by almost 50% compared to the control in only five weeks.
One important aspect of cancer recovery is the ability to stop something called cancer stem cells. These are cancer cells that are left behind after treatment, that masquerade as normal, and then switch back into growth mode years later. One of the most interesting aspects of the research on curcumin is that it has been shown to help stop breast cancer stem cell self-renewal and proliferation. That is a very good thing for recovery!
It is important to consider the type of curcumin used for supplementation, as curcumin is hard to absorb and doesn’t remain active in the blood stream for long periods of time. The most clinically studied enhanced absorption curcumin is called BCM-95 curcumin, which is a blend of curcumin with turmeric essential oil containing ar-turmerone. It has been shown to be 700% better absorbed than standard curcumin, and stay at beneficial levels in the blood stream for eight hours or more. It has also been used in research at Baylor University Medical Center in Texas and City of Hope Cancer Hospital in California, and at many other locations worldwide.
Anticancer Benefits from Grape Seed Extract
Grape seed extract contains compounds called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (say that three times fast!) or OPCs. These compounds can be very useful in both prevention of and recovery from breast cancer. In addition to being a super potent antioxidant (which protects your cells from cancerous changes), it has also been investigated for its direct anticancer benefits.
In a recent scientific study, researchers found that OPCs from grape seed extract can decrease cancer cell resistance to chemotherapy drugs like 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and oxaliplatin. OPCs helped decrease the cancer cell’s ability to pump the chemotherapy drugs out, meaning more of the drugs stayed within the cancer cell, leading to potentially much better results. The same study found that the cancer cell proliferation rate was significantly reduced when the OPCs were combined with the chemotherapeutic drugs.
In another animal model study looking at use with chemotherapy, scientists found that combining a chemotherapeutic drug called cisplatin with grape seed extract was shown to decrease kidney damage. Upwards of 30% of patients receiving cisplatin can have acute or long-term kidney damage, so the potential of this herb to protect the kidneys without interfering with chemotherapy’s activity against cancer cells is very promising.
Grape seed extract has been shown to decrease the invasiveness of triple-negative breast cancer, and in a cellular study, it was demonstrated that after 72 hours of incubation with grape seed extract, there was a 43% decrease in breast cancer cell growth. Using a higher concentration of grape seed extract resulted in a 47% inhibition in cell growth. This same study demonstrated that grape seed extract enhanced the growth and survival of normal cells.
The beneficial OPCs in grape seed extract come in many sizes, and the larger ones, often called tannins, are not able to be absorbed. It is important to look for tannin-free grape seed extract for full benefits.
Talk to Your Doctor Breast Health
While there are incredibly promising nutrients that can play a beneficial role in breast health, please discuss use of ALL dietary supplements with your healthcare practitioner if you are dealing with a serious disease. The best health outcomes occur with everyone on the team is pulling in the same direction!