We wish we could report that eating a pint of ice cream will banish breast tenderness. It won’t. But there are plenty of dietary tweaks that may lessen the discomfort.
Most breast tenderness can be blamed on hormone fluctuation that precedes menstruation. The breast also responds to menstruation by absorbing extra fluid, which doesn’t help. Another cause is fibrocystic breast disease, in which benign lumps form in the breast tissue and can become tender, especially close to and during menstruation. Stress, pregnancy, and medications like hormones can also cause breast pain. In rare cases, breast cancer (which usually doesn’t involve pain) or noncancerous tumors can cause tenderness, so letting your doctor know about your breast discomfort is a good idea.
Although Ben and Jerry’s won’t make it all better, there are some foods you can add to your diet that may help. Subtracting certain other foods may even be more important.
Oily fish, flaxseed, and other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids
With each bite of grilled salmon, you get omega-3 fatty acids that help balance eicosanoids, hormone-like substances that help control inflammation, pain, and swelling. You also get resolvins, a recently discovered class of anti-inflammatory fats, which appear to ease inflammation much the same way aspirin does.
Flaxseeds seeds offer omega-3 fatty acids as well as some fiber and lignans, plant estrogen that may reduce the risk of breast cancer. To get the most benefit from flaxseeds, buy whole seeds and keep them refrigerated. Grind them as needed in a coffee or spice grinder.
Try to aim for 1,000 milligrams of omega-3s a day, about the amount in 2 ounces of salmon or five walnut halves. If you are not a fish fan, aim to eat 1 tablespoons of ground flaxseed a day, added to breakfast cereals, oatmeal, or yogurt.
If you eat a lot of fatty fish> or other foods high in omega-3s, you need more vitamin E than people whose diets are lower in omega-3s. Look to almonds, wheat germ, and spinach for this vitamin, which may itself help relieve breast pain, although the jury is still out.
The estrogen-like plant chemicals in soy and flaxseed weakly mimic human estrogen and may help assuage breast tenderness. In a small, two month British study of women ages 18 to 35, eating soy protein containing 68 milligrams of soy isoflavones every day ( about the amount in two servings of soy foods) significantly reduced breast tenderness and swelling compared to a placebo. One caveat: If you’re taking tamoxifen or another anti-estrogen medication, such as aromatase inhibitor, you shouldn’t eat soy.
Try to aim for about 68 milligrams of soy isoflavones daily, about the amount you’d get from a glass of soy milk and a half cup of tofu. It can’t hurt to have one or two soy-based meals a week, snack on edamame (green soybeans), and pour soy milk instead of dairy milk.
Whole grains, lentils, pears, and other foods high in fiber
One of the most important tweaks you can make to your diet to lessen breast tenderness and pain is to eat more fiber. Fiber lowers estrogen levels, which helps minimize breast tenderness as well as other PMS symptoms.
Add about 25 to 35 grams of fiber to your diet a day. You can get there by eating a serving of bran cereal in the morning, a salad with ½ cup of cooked lentils at lunchtime, a pear as a snack, and a cup of winter squash with dinner.
One reason the breast may get sore around menstruation is that they absorb extra fluid. Ironically, drinking plenty of water every day can decrease water retention; the more fluid you drink, the less fluid the body feels it must hold. Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day.
Vitamin E. Some studies have found that vitamin E is helpful in relieving breast pain; others have not. The daily recommended dose is 400IU daily, the dose that appears to relieve breast tenderness in several studies.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids come in soft gel fish-oil capsules or in liquid forms such as flaxseed oil (though flaxseed oil doesn’t provide any of the fiber or lignans that ground flaxseed does). Choose a supplement that contains vitamin E, which will help prevent spoilage, and store it in the fridge. The dosage amount you want to go for is 1 to 3 grams a day. Check with your doctor before taking omega-3s if you’re also taking a blood thinner such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Chasteberry extract. Women have used chasteberry extract for thousands for years to tame menstrual problems. Over the past 50 years, more than 30 European trials have shown that supplements improve menstrual symptoms, including breast tenderness. Many of the studies suggest taking up to 4 milligrams per day.
Foods to avoid
Saturated fat and most vegetable oils. Put the coffee cake and corn oil away. The saturated fat in butter and fatty meats promotes inflammation, and many experts believe that so do the omega-6 fatty acids found in corn, sunflower, and safflower oil. Canola oil and olive oil are much better choices. Trans fat is a “no no” too, so avoid products with any “partially hydrogenated” ingredients, and buy trans fat-free margarine.
Alcohol. Pass on wine with dinner, at least before and during your period. Alcohol interferes with the normal hormone shifts that occur around menstruation and can increase breast tenderness.
Salt. Salt holds fluid in body tissues, adding to the sweeling that increases breast tenderness.
Caffeine. Although there is no solid evidence that links caffeine with breast tenderness, some doctors still recommend dropping coffee and other caffeinated drinks, primarily because they’ve seen patients improve once they give them up. Try switching to caffeine-free teas and soda for four to six months to see if you notice any difference.