About 80% of women have lumpy or fibrocystic breasts and an estimated 1 in 8 women will battle breast cancer at some point in their life.  Breast cysts, lumps and breast cancer are not new.  In fact Chinese medicine texts mention breast lumps (Ru Yan) as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368 AD).

If you are female you will, at some point in your life, have breasts.  The more information and control that a woman has over her body, the greater the opportunity for her to have a healthy breasts and the likelihood that she will pass that wisdom to others around her.

Fibrocystic breasts are characterized by fibrous lumps that move freely under the skin, unlike cancerous lumps that are hard and immobile.  Cystic breasts frequently become tender, hot or may swell around menses.  These lumps appear because the body creates too little progesterone or it creates too much estrogen. Having cysts and lumps, do not necessarily increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. However, we can talk about the two of them together as many of the most of the recommendations for what helps or hurts the breasts are true of benign breast disorders and breast cancer.

Western medicine has made tremendous headway with early detection and treatment of cancers and, thankfully, breast cancer is on the decline.  Still, the American Cancer Association estimates that will be more than 226,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer  and nearly 40,000 women are expected to die from it this year alone.  It’s an alarming number.

Now, I’m not out to scare anyone. In clinical practice, I see many women who are on birth control or hormones to suppress or treat patterns that can be greatly improved or cured by Asian medicine.  Sometimes these methods are necessary and sometimes they merely mask the underlying problem which is allows it to perpetuate.  My focus isn’t to delve into Western medicine’s information, rather the  purpose of this blog is to bring awareness of  breast conditions from soreness and cysts to cancer, from an Asian medicine perspective.

Asian medicine rocks when it comes to treating women’s issues including PMS, breast disharmonies, menstrual difficulties and menopause.

Why?  Asian medicine looks to treat the symptom and the root of any disease.  Asian medicine is preventative in nature.  The goal is to help the body where it is at whether treating a serious condition like cancer or just helping the body shifts through phases like menarche, the child bearing years and menopause in a harmonious way.  Ideally, we want to work to addressing issues before they become greatly out of balance–which means teaching client awareness and responsibility.

Disharmonies often move on a continuum.  Appearing a just a little discomfort or an energetic imbalance before building into something larger if unchecked.  For example a teenage girl may suffer from a bit of PMS, breast distention or cramps from her period. If conditions are right–she eats well, deals with her emotions, learns some general ‘how to take care of me’ skills, the body will likely shift itself and she will have a healthy normal cycle.  On the other had patterns can increase or be perpetuated by inappropriate diet, excessive emotions, exposure to toxins or lack of awareness.  It’s all about choices and action or inaction.

Back to breasts.

Let’s talk breast location for a moment.  The area around the breasts are particularly busy area for Qi (energy) and Blood movement in the energetic channels.  The Stomach Channel flows directly down the mammary line, the Liver Channel ends just below the nipple, where it should send its energy up to the Lung Channel just above the breast, and the Kidney Channel, Conception Vessel, Spleen Channel, Heart Channel, Pericardium  and the Gall Bladder Channel are all near or on the breasts.   It can become a bit of a traffic jam, energetically speaking, and stagnation is a common problem in breast patterns.   Whether breast distention or breast cancer, it is vitally important that blocked energy is released and the chest, lungs and heart are opened for Qi flow.

Primary Patterns that lead to breast lumps in Asian Medicine

For you practitioners or those of you with a little CM background, understanding pathology of the disharmony means a focused, effective treatment.

  • Phlegm Damp Accumulation – This pattern most commonly arises from diet.  In Chinese medicine Spleen Yang is the fire or cauldron that heats your digestive system (your metabolism). Too many sugars, refined and processed foods, cold and raw foods, dairy and yeast will lead drain or put out the fire causing  Spleen Yang deficiency.  As the fire can no longer properly transform food and fluids, you build up damp, quagmire-like conditions. Lumps, cysts and growths begin to manifest. When this pattern is dominant the breasts will often swell around the time of ovulation up to menses.  Tongue will have a slippery coating and be swollen.  Pulse will be slippery and likely have a cotton quality. Treatment will focus on draining dampness, tonifying the Spleen.  Put the ice cream down….
  • Liver Qi Stagnation leading to Fire – Whether caused by deficiency of Blood, obstruction of cold, stagnation of emotions, or lack of physical movement things have stopped moving.  No movement means build up which will become toxic over time. The tongue will often have a purple/dusky hue.  The pulse will be on the tight continuum, especially in the Liver position but possibly throughout.   Liver Qi stagnation and phlegm like to hang out together.  Which came first?  Doesn’t really matter at this point – treatment would still focus on draining damp and moving stasis.
  • Blood, Qi or Kidney Deficiency – Not enough Qi and Blood for a myriad of reasons. Look for a pale tongue and fine, weak pulse. Kidney patterns will influence the Governing, Conception and Penetrating Vessels.
  • Toxic Heat and Static Blood – The pattern often arises from living in very toxic conditions, exposure to chemicals.  Toxins can come from environmental factors  like pollution, ingested foods and drugs, or stagnation that builds over time.  The tongue is red to purple with a thick heavy coating. Pulse is blood thick.

Overall, the Asian medicine practitioner’s goal is assess if the underlying pattern is of excess or deficiency and then to purge stagnation and remove toxins in the breasts and Lower Burner.

Breast Enemies

Body Fat – Excess body weight means more estrogen in the system. Shift to an estrogen reducing diet. In short–try for 40-60% of your diet to vegetables and fruit (keep fruit to 1-2 servings a day–too sweet); 20-30% whole grains; Beans, nuts and meat 10-15%.  However, don’t strip your diet entirely of fats, keep most of them lean and clean like olive oil. Eat less, move more.

Dairy – Like begets like.  The milk of another animal specifically goes to the breasts of the animal drinking it.  Add to this that millions drink milk that is load with growth hormones and antibiotics and we are walking on thin ice.  Dairy is very damp and cloying–meaning it creates a tremendous amount of phlegm, mucus and adds on body fat. Doesn’t mean never eat it–but you may need to cut it down or out for a while.

Hormone laden animal proteins: eggs, meat and dairy – Many breast disharmonies are related to too much estrogen in the body. Whenever you start adding in hormones whether through eating meat, dairy and eggs that have GSH in them; through birth control; or by eating xenoestrogens and phytoestrogens (foods that have estrogen like properties), there is a risk of tipping the body’s balance.

Starches and refined grains – Eating excess sweets and refined grains and starches require the body to neutralize them with insulin–which is shown to increase breast cancer cell growth.  From an Asian medicine view, the Spleen is depleted by these (have to release insulin) which will lead to damp accumulation and growth.

Chocolate – I know you love it, but it doesn’t love your breasts.  Chocolate is potent food, couple that with the sugar that is in it and often milk and we are on the path to dampness and stagnation and Liver disharmonies again. It doesn’t mean never have it, work to get a healthy relationship to it.  Don’t binge on chocolate to curb cravings that are likely for vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Coffee – Another food that women love that doesn’t give back to the breast. Regular or Decaf (it isn’t just the caffeine) energetically targets the breasts.  It is hot at first (pushes Liver Qi stagnation) but at the cost of leaving your adrenals (a Yang function) high and dry. It is also oily and cloying–gooey.  Try reducing and substituting with Roma, Pero or other grain beverages that actually benefit the breasts.

Xenoestrogen & Phytoestrogens – These are foods or chemicals that mimic estrogen. Natural or synthetic they should be avoided or greatly reduce by women with cysts, lumps or fibroids.  The list is long and includes lotions, birth control pills, plastics, dryer sheets, Premarin…Click here for more.

Out of control emotions – These guys again. Any longstanding emotion such as worry, grief, hatred, anxiety, depression and anger will build up, injure its corresponding organ and lead to stag in the system and lead to stagnation. Practices such as meditation, qigong, singing and journaling can help you recognize and dissolve habits of inappropriate emotions.  It doesn’t mean don’t feel, it means don’t let emotions control you or that you don’t use hormones as an excuse to allow emotions to run amok.

Ingested chemicals – If your great grand mother wouldn’t recognize it or you need a degree in chemistry to understand what is your food – put it down. Preservatives, additives, flavorings, synthetic sweeteners burden the systems with toxins that may or may not move out of the system.  This includes birth control pills – a difficult topic-even if you are taking it for heavy cycles or physical reasons consider taking a break and using alternative therapies to try and regulate your system. Also consider alternative birth control for while to give your system a break.

Clothing – Let the ladies loose!  Remember all those channels and points I mentioned around the breast? Restrictive clothing and under wires block Qi flow and the lymphatic system which flushes toxins out of the system. Studies show that women who wear a bra for 12 or more hours a day increase their risk of breast disease by as much as 19%.  Those who wear them all the time skyrocket their risk by more than 100%. As pretty and fun as some bras can be – know when your health is more important than a push up bra.

Family history – A family history of cancer or benign breast disease increases risk. Thyroid disharmonies also put a woman at risk for breast patterns. Don’t hesitate to find out your family’s history on health.

Breast Friends  

Fiber – Fiber helps to reduce body weight, remove toxins and excess estrogen, which can be reabsorbed in the large intestines if it isn’t moved out through the bowels. Make sure your diet includes high fiber foods like apples, squash, berries and plums.  Adults need about 38-40 grams a day. If you are like millions of Americans, you aren’t getting in enough. How about some beans and rice?

Cornsilk – Great for fibrocystic breast, uteran congestion and bladder issues.

Kudzu – Ge gen, also called kuzu, is an awesome little vine that is taking over the south.  Kudzu has an amazing ability to keep estrogen from triggering breast cysts. It also releases neck tension and helps treat hypertenstion–bonus.

Kelp – Iodine deficiency can make the breasts more susceptible to to estrogen overload. Getting iodine through seaweeds like kelp or a natural sea salt are the best ways to get it in. The salty flavor and energetics of seaweeds specifically drain damp and soften hard masses (lumps and cysts) of any type.  It helps treat hot flashes too.

Meditation – Meditation is the best way to not succumb to churning emotions.  Meditation allows us to let go of the noise and distraction of busy lives making you more effective when you reengage. If you have never practiced before, find guidance to get started.

Green Tea – Simple green tea is shown to reduce the swellings and masses including those cancers.  Enjoy several cups of decaf a day.

Ginger – Ginger has an amazing ability to stop or regulate the production of hormones that cause swellings.  A classic herb for treating women’s disharmonies, it warms the center and cold hands and feet and cramps.

Beta carotene and sunshine – Big boosters for the immune system sunshine and colorful food are important in breast health.  Eat your colorful vegetables and get out into the sun.

Cinnamon – Like ginger, another famous herb for women’s issues.  Cinnamon is used to help treat fibrocystic breast,  and bleeding uterine fibroids.  It’s a wise herb, it can be used to make blood flow, as in delayed menses or it can be used to stop bleeding.

Nursing – There is no doubt that nursing is great for the breasts and reduces chances of cancer.  In actuality, the breast don’t fully develop until a woman becomes pregnant when the milk ducts fill.  Some women may choose or not be able to have children, however if you do choose to become a mother nursing is one of the best things you can do for your breasts and your child’s health.

Exercise and Qigong – Appropriate exercise for your body type is essential for proper removal of toxins–the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump except your muscles moving. Exercise tones and strengthens the muscles, reduces fat, lifts the moods–what doesn’t it do?  Remember to find the right match for you.  A healthy woman may be able to do marathons but a woman who has just had a double mastectomy may need to back down to Qigong and gentle movement while her body recovers.

Amma Therapy or Acupuncture – Through the use of assessment like tongue, pulse and questioning your practitioner will be able to focus treatment for your particular pattern.  In many cases we recommend that women come in during the time of their cycle when they have difficulties. Amma and Acupuncture are also great adjunct therapies for women going through cancer therapies, surgery and recovery.

Self Massage – I am still amazed at the number of women who know little about their breasts–were even appalled when I asked if they did self exams. Whatever the conditioning behind the behavior–rub your breasts ladies. Early detection through self examination has save many.  Like massage elsewhere in the body, it will help improve the Qi flow to the breasts and reduce pain and swelling.  Even after mastectomies I recommend massage to break down the scar tissue.  Like the bumper sticker says “feel your boobies.”

Even if you do not have breast, menstrual complaints, suffer from cysts or fibroids, are actively battling cancer or are one the road to recover Chinese medicine and Holistic Nutrition is wonderful with women’s health.

Be well!

April Crowell