Protect Your Peaks: Practical Tips for Year-Round Breast Wellness

October marked the 25th year of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a remembrance intended to raise visibility about the increasing incidence of breast cancer and emphasize the importance of early detection. These are critical messages. But I’m always struck by what I don’t hear: practical advice on how to keep your breasts protected and healthy all year.

Breast tissue is particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins as well as dietary habits. This is partly because breasts are primarily fatty tissue that stores toxins. Breast tissue is also highly sensitive to hormonal signals, many of which come from environmental pollutants. Breast cells are some of the more rapidly dividing cells in the body, putting them at a higher risk for mutations, particularly in the presence of DNA-damaging toxins.

Toxic Soup

Many environmental toxins are not very water-soluble. Instead, they like to dissolve in lipids, so they tend to store in fatty tissues throughout the body. Breast tissue has a high fat content: Breasts are composed of ducts and glands surrounded by fatty tissue. As women age and sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone decrease, the glandular tissue diminishes and there is a corresponding increase in fatty tissue.

Pesticides and other chemicals, as well as heavy metals, tend to gravitate toward these fatty tissues. Numerous studies have found high levels of toxins in both breast tissue and breast milk. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has an excellent article that details the results of numerous studies and also provides information on individual toxins and their risks.

Interestingly, countries that have banned specific chemicals such as DDT and other dangerous pesticides have seen a corresponding drop in breast milk concentrations. Even with the ban, however, many of these chemicals, known as “POPs” (Persistent Organic Pollutants), remain in the environment for a long time and continue to bio-accumulate up the food chain. Decreasing their levels takes time.

The NRDC states that there are more than 85,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S., and very few of them have actually been tracked or studied for their health effects. We have seen a reduction of certain chemicals in breast milk samples, but have also seen an alarming rise in other chemicals such as brominated flame retardants, known as PBDEs. Bromine is a near relative of the essential nutrient iodine. When bromine steps in and blocks thyroid iodine receptors, thyroid function suffers. Bromine is also used commonly in commercial flour and baked goods and numerous other packaged food products, as well as in pool chemicals.

Hormone Imposters

In addition to the direct toxic effects of these chemicals, there is a group of chemicals with another dangerous trait. Known as endocrine disruptors, environmental estrogens, or xenoestrogens, this group of chemicals mimics estrogen and other hormones and tricks the body into using them.

These estrogen mimics produce excessive stimulation to hormone-sensitive tissues. In order to understand how this works, we need to look at how hormones communicate with their target tissues. Cells comprising specific hormone-sensitive tissues, such as breast, uterine and testicular tissue, have receptor sites on their cell surface for particular hormones. These receptors have a definite shape, and function similarly to a lock and key mechanism. The hormone fits snugly into the receptor which “opens the door,” allowing a signal to enter the cell and give instructions to the cell nucleus. Often, the message is to grow, grow, grow. However, the shape of environmental estrogen mimics is similar enough to the native hormone that the toxin can fit into the receptor and activate the cell, often producing excessive growth and disrupting the body’s complex communication network. Studies in animals from contaminated lakes and streams have seen reproductive changes that seriously hamper normal reproduction, producing offspring with feminizing organ development and other serious developmental issues.

Top Offenders

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just published a list of the top chemicals found to be endocrine disruptors. To read about these chemicals and where they are most commonly found, visit the EWG website.

A Different Kind Of Breast Support

First on the list for any health program is educating yourself about the toxins in your surroundings, including food and water supply as well as household products, body products, etc. This is particularly critical for breast health. Using a water filter, eating organic whole food, and buying natural home and body products is an excellent start.

Next on the list, add foods and supplements that help remove chemicals and heavy metals. The plant kingdom is a great ally in our efforts to keep breasts toxin-free. Sulphur-containing foods such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, and garlic all contain compounds that aid in detoxification. Modified citrus pectin, derived from the pith of citrus peels, easily enters the circulation and has been shown in human studies to safely remove heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead, and arsenic from the blood.

I also recommend a researched combination of botanical compounds including DIM (diindolylmethane from cruciferous vegetables), curcumin, quercetin, astragalus, and medicinal mushrooms. This formula provides powerful support for healthy breast cell behavior, immune function, and hormone balance.

As always, a proactive, multifaceted, integrative approach is the best way to support long-term health. And for the men reading this article, this applies to you as well! I encourage you to take steps this year to protect and enhance the health of your breasts and other hormone-sensitive tissues.