26 Oct 4 ways to rein in breast pain in the second half of your cycle
- Breasts get sore and tender in the two weeks before your period? It’s normal, but avoidable. Here are 4 study-backed methods to banish breast pain.
UPDATED OCTOBER 26, 2022 (originally published August 11, 2018)—Do you get breast pain during your luteal phase, which is the two weeks before your period (also known as your Week 3 and Week 4)? For example, does tenderness, swelling and aches in one or both breasts interrupt your workout? Made you wince while climbing down stairs? Made it difficult to sleep?
If so, you’re not alone. About 60% of women experience cyclical breast pain called mastalgia.
The problem is that breast tissue on these cycle days can become inflamed and swollen, and your body may be producing an overabundance of pain chemicals that make every little move hurt like hell.
Why this kind of cyclical breast pain occurs, however, is still a bit of mystery to researchers.
When breast pain happens in the two weeks leading up to your period over and over, researchers agree that it has something to do with your menstrual cycle. (That part seems kinda obvious.) But, what exactly is going on mechanically is still up for debate: It could be an imbalance of hormones, such as too much estrogen and too little progesterone. It could be that your body is overly-sensitive to a rise in the hormone prolactin, which helps the breasts make milk. It could be that the structure of your breasts lends itself to more premenstrual tenderness in this cycle phase. It could be down to lifestyle issues, such as too much stress. It could be due to consuming too much fat in your diet or poor fat metabolism in your body. Or it could be a combination of some or all of the above. It’s shocking that we can send video cameras to explore the surface of Mars, but evidently nailing down why billions of women get socked with premenstrual breast pain month after month still eludes scientists.
Fortunately, there is good news to report: Despite the uncertainty on the mechanisms behind breast pain, two 2022 studies have concluded that experiencing breast discomfort is rarely associated with breast cancer.1
What’s more, you don’t have to put up with the pain! That’s because researchers have discovered three relatively easy tips and one not-as-easy tip (see #4) that have been study-proven to reduce, and even eliminate, premenstrual breast discomfort. To start easing your breast pain…
1. Wear the right bra
Sounds too easy to work, but wearing a well-fitting support bra or sports bra reduces breast pain 75% to 85% according to two studies.2,3 The reason may seem obvious: Snug bras keep breasts in place as you move so there’s less strain on inflamed tissue.
This remedy is so effective, it’s considered the first line of treatment for cyclical breast pain.
Think you’re wearing a supportive bra, but still experience premenstrual breast pain? You could be wearing the wrong bra size or a bra that doesn’t give you the kind of strapped-to-your-body support this tip calls for.
I used to think I had my bra size and type down pat. Wow, was I wrong. A few years ago, I impulsively decided to visit a lingerie store at my local mall and get a complimentary bra fitting. It was my first time there and I had no idea what to expect. So, what happened next was really surprising:
I discovered that even though I’d been wearing bras all my post-puberty life, I’d been wearing them all wrong. The cup size was too small. The part that wraps around your body was too big. And I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be doing anything with my straps.
Once the bra-fitter got me in the correct size and gave me a bra that had full support, it was like a life-changing moment: Finally my bra felt GOOD! I’d assumed all bras were supposed to chafe, poke, ride up, fall down and just suck in general. Not so. Evidently, a bra that fits you correctly–and snugly–is not only comfortable to wear, it makes your breasts more comfortable all day, too. I can see why researchers say replacing your bra is the first line of defense against breast pain.
I’m sharing this personal story with you in the hopes that it inspires you to go get a complimentary bra fitting at a lingerie store–even if you are completely convinced you’re wearing the right-sized bra. Been a few years since your last fitting? Get another one. Breast size and shape can change over the years, making it necessary to switch from your usual bra.
2. Eat flaxseed
Flaxseed is a tiny nut-flavored seed that’s considered a potent health-booster because of its rich supply of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linoleic acid that reduces inflammation and is good for your heart.
Well, turns out, flaxseed is also good for your breasts.
In one study, women who ate 30 grams of ground flaxseed (roughly four tablespoons) daily experienced a greater than 50% reduction in breast pain within two menstrual cycles.4
It may be that natural plant-based estrogens (phytoestrogens) in flaxseed balance out-of-kilter hormone levels that could be contributing to cycle-related breast tenderness and swelling.
Opt for ground flaxseed over whole since grinding helps you absorb more of its beneficial nutrients. Then, add it to yogurt, salads and oatmeal or include it in recipes.
Ground flaxseed is widely available at your local grocery stores and health food stores and on Amazon.
3. Use relaxation-boosters
Remember how I mentioned above that researchers suspected stress could be one culprit behind premenstrual breast complaints? Well, one study seems to back up that theory:
When women with premenstrual breast pain practiced daily progressive muscle relaxation (where you tense, then relax, each muscle group in your body one at a time), 61% experienced either significant reduction or total elimination of breast pain with four weeks.5
Relaxation exercises like this may reduce stress and anxiety that can worsen pain sensitivity. Additionally, these techniques could be spurring the release of pain-curbing endorphins in the brain.
To try progressive muscle relaxation yourself, follow this 10-minute University of New Hampshire video.
4. Reduce your fat intake
I warned you up above in the intro that there was one less-than-easy tip in this bunch. This is it. But, if you’re struggling with severe breast pain, chances are, you’ll be open to anything. Even cutting back on foods high in delicious fat.
And doing so could reap pain-blunting rewards. That’s the news from one study that found six in 10 women who ate a diet low in fat (equal to 15% of total daily calories) and high in complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits) experienced less breast swelling and tenderness within six months.6
It may be because higher fat consumption is linked to higher estrogen or denser breasts, which may exacerbate premenstrual breast pain.
Just be sure not to go lower than 15% total fat in your diet or eliminate fat from your plate altogether. Your body actually needs a certain amount of fat (preferably from good-for-you sources, such as avocados, nuts and fish) to produce a healthy balance of hormones in your body.
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(1) Rajiv V. Dave, et al., “No association between breast pain and breast cancer: a prospective cohort study of 10 830 symptomatic women presenting to a breast cancer diagnostic clinic”, The British Journal of General Practice, 72 (2022)e234-e243
Ian K Komenaka, et al., “Mastalgia is Not An Indication for Mammogram”, Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, published online September 12, 2022
(2) Maha S. A. Abdel Hadi, “Sports Brassiere: Is It a Solution for Mastalgia?”, The Breast Journal, 6 (2000): 407-409
(3) M. C. Wilson, R. A. Sellwood, “Therapeutic value of a supporting brassière in mastodynia”, BMJ, 2 (1976): 90
(4) Farideh Vaziri, et al., “Comparing the Effects of Dietary Flaxseed and Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supplement on Cyclical Mastalgia in Iranian Women: A Randomized Clinical Trial”, International Journal of Family Medicine, published online August 13, 2014
(5) H. Fox, et al., “Are patients with mastalgia anxious, and does relaxation therapy help?”, The Breast, 6 (1997): 138-142
(6) N. F. Boyd, et al., “Effect of a low-fat high-carbohydrate diet on symptoms of cyclical mastopathy”, The Lancet, 2 (1988): 128-132