I’ve heard that mammograms and physical exams won’t always detect breast cancer. Why is that?

Dense breasts is more than a descriptor of breast mass. It's a condition that can have health consequences.

Children’s book author Judy Blume recently announced on her blog that she underwent a mastectomy after a routine ultrasound revealed breast cancer. She made a point of saying that her dense breast tissue had made her cancer impossible to detect through either a physical exam or mammogram.

Breast density can indeed prevent mammography from highlighting suspicious markings—the dense tissue literally blocks the view. That’s why an ultrasound is the better detection option for women who have dense breasts.

Not surprisingly, hormones are a big factor in many breast-related conditions. Young women have more circulating hormones, making their breast tissue typically denser than older women. That’s because breast tissue contains estrogen receptors, a destination for circulating estrogen. When the liver can’t break down the body’s excess estrogen it continues to circulate and the risk of estrogen-related breast cancer increases.

Fat also plays a role in breast density. Estrogen loves fat, so premenopausal women who are overweight are generally more at risk for breast cancer because their fat stores are greater than in women of normal weight. Fat stores in the breast will attract estrogen.

Even slim premenopausal women who ingest more estrogen than normal through the environment—or through estrogen-mimickers in products like skin care items, cosmetics, and plastic containers—are at risk for denser breasts if their livers are not helping rid the body of these substances.

Postmenopausal women produce only a small amount of hormones through their adrenals. These hormones are converted in the fat cells to estrogen and progesterone. However, postmenopausal women’s livers, which have often become more toxic over many years, may not be up to the task of breaking down even the small amount of estrogen circulating in their systems. Hormone replacement therapy is another factor that can increase breast density.

The good news is that a woman with dense breasts and too much circulating estrogen can take action to improve her condition. Here are four potential remedies and strategies that can help.

1. Eliminate coffee and caffeine. Coffee contains methylxanthine and chocolate contains theobromine. Both substances, derived from xanthine, are stimulants associated with creating fibrous tissue in the breast. By going cold turkey off these two items for several days, a woman can determine whether her breast tissue is sensitive to either coffee or chocolate.

2. Go easy on red meat. Unless you buy certified organic meat, you don’t know what hormone-related feed the animal has ingested. Also, too much fat congests the liver, preventing the liver from breaking down estrogens and other toxins.

3. Try iodine. If a patient has dense breasts, a small daily amount of iodine—between 150 and 300 mcg—from an over the counter brand may help. (This iodine supplement is not the first-aid iodine that one puts on wounds.) Iodine helps support thyroid hormone production, which subsequently can decrease estrogen stimulation of breast tissue. Women should also eat seaweed, an iodine-rich food.

4. Eat cruciferous vegetables. Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower all contain Indole-3-carbinol, a compound that helps the liver break down estrogen into more benign components. The detoxifying qualities of these cruciferous vegetables make them an excellent choice for women with dense breasts.

 

Laurie Steelsmith ND, LAc, is a licensed naturopathic physician and acupuncturist with a 20-year private practice in Honolulu. She and her husband, Alex Steelsmith, are coauthors of Great Sex, Naturally: Every Woman's Guide To Enhancing Her Sexuality Through The Secrets Of Natural Medicine. Learn more at drlauriesteelsmith.com.