Fibrocystic Breasts

The symptoms of fibrocystic breast disease (FBD) are swelling, pain, and tenderness of the breast, and the presence of small or large cysts, abnormal sacs containing gas, blood, fluids or semisolid (mucinous) waste material.  The associated pain increases prior to menstruation, due to the rise in estrogen levels.  The cystic areas are palpable to touch, with a dense, irregular and stone-like feel.  A physician should examine any lump to ascertain the diagnosis, especially if there is any discharge from the nipples.  This disease affects as many as 20-40% of pre-menopausal women, but the severity of the condition usually decreases or subsides after menopause.

Of interest is the recognition that cysts are “holding tanks” set up by the body to capture and cordon off toxic fluids and waste material.  The correlation between these waste materials and disease processes closely resembles the Ayurvedic concept that, when not cleared quickly enough, toxic metabolic byproducts mix with and alter normally healthy tissue components.  When pancreas cysts are examined by needle aspiration and found to contain mucinous material, for example, they are more likely to become cancerous (Nguyen et al., 1997).  Examination of breast cyst fluids from 148 patients with fibrocystic breast disease showed high levels of PSA (prostate-specific antigen), a well-established marker of prostate cancer now found associated with breast cancer (Borchert et al., 1999).  Blood levels were not elevated in the women with fibrocystic disease, just the fluid in the cyst.  In women with breast cancer, the PSA in the blood was on average five times higher than in women without cancer (Black et al., 2000).  This suggests both that breast cysts are related to abnormalities in hormone activity, and that they are protective as long as they are able to prevent the abnormal hormonal metabolites from spilling over into the blood.

One of the first things to check is the patients intake of iodine, which is clearly associated with fibrocystic breasts. I have had many patients resolve this issue over several months with a simple increase in iodine. Interestingly, many are  reducing salt intake for various reasons, or using sea salt which does not contain iodine. the RDA of 125 mcg is far below intake in many countries, and some studies suggest 3-10 times as much. I credit this insight to holistic physician Jonathan Wright, MD.  I began recommending iodine supplementation after I listened to one of his lectures, in which he discussed the softening of patients’ fibrocystic breast lumps within hours of taking a physiologic dosage of iodine solution.

If iodine does not solve the problem, the treatment would be to restore balance to the hormonal systems and prevent factors that aggravate or enlarge the cysts.  Many (but not all) authorities recommend removing all possible sources of caffeine from the diet, especially coffee, tea, chocolate and soft drinks (Ferrini and Barrett-Connor 1996), as they seem to irritate the condition.  It may also be helpful to reduce dietary intake of hormone-fed meats.  The herbal PMS treatments discussed earlier can be used to balance hormones, along with treatments used to keep the liver healthy.  TCM doctors note that this problem is often associated with liver congestion.  The main herb they use is immature green tangerine peel, also called blue citrus peel (qing pi or Citrus reticulata).  A commercial formula for breast hyperplasia, called blue citrus tablets, is available from ITM.

Research Highlights

•  In various studies, FBD patients were found to have lower intake of cholesterol, niacin and zinc (Vobecky et al, 1993), lower levels of blood selenium (Schrauzer et al., 1985) and higher than normal intake of caffeine (Bullough et al., 1990).

• According to one epidemiological study, “The positive association of caffeine with estrone and its inverse association with bioavailable testosterone suggest that caffeine’s reported association with several chronic conditions may be mediated by an effect on endogenous sex steroids” (Ferrini and Barrett-Connor, 1996). 

• Another study instructed 147 women with FBD to abstain from methylxanthines (caffeine, theophylline and theobromine).  Of the 113 patients who complied, reducing their caffeine intake substantially, 61 percent reported a decrease or absence of breast pain (Russell 1989).