It's easy to write off breast pain as yet another uncomfortable side effect of menstruation. While hormones do indeed play a role in what causes breast tenderness, it's not the only culprit. As women's health expert and doula Kimberly Johnson tells MyDomaine, there are other factors that contribute to soreness in breasts—and some pain can be avoided simply by changing what we wear or eat.
"Breast pain is most commonly associated with hormones, which makes sense since so many women experience soreness and tenderness during certain times of their cycle, usually premenstrually, or in the first days of bleeding," says the certified sexological bodyworker, who's set to launch a virtual course this fall and has a book due this December.
She points out that there are two types of breast pain—cyclical and noncyclical—and in the case of the former, she notes that there are "many ways to go about regulating the hormones to minimize all the pre-menstrual symptoms, including breast tenderness."
Here, Johnson explains what causes breast tenderness, how to alleviate it, and when it's time to consult a medical professional for your pain.
Common Causes of Breast Pain
Hormones. "A little bit of cyclic breast pain can be considered normal, usually starting about a week before your [period] begins—but again, you can minimize this by optimizing your menstrual health," says Johnson.
Fibrosis. Some women have excess fibrous connective tissue or cysts in their breasts, which can cause tenderness and pain. As the American Cancer Society explains, "fibrosis can be noncancerous, and while they're most common in women of childbearing age, [they] affect women of any age."
Inflammation. "Breast pain can stem from inflammation, so the more we eliminate inflammation everywhere in the body, the less likely we'll have breast pain," she says.
Wearing the wrong bra. Surprisingly, ill-fitting underpinnings can be to blame for noncyclical breast pain. "Women with larger, hanging breasts may need better support," Johnson explains.
Breastfeeding. Any new mom can tell you that the joys of nursing can sometimes be offset by not-so-pleasant side effects, like breast tenderness. "Pain in the breast tissue and nipples with breastfeeding can be very uncomfortable, but that is expected and normal as mom and baby get adapted," assures Johnson.
Top Ways to Alleviate Breast Tenderness
Vaginal steaming. "Yes, steaming your vagina can impact breast tenderness because regulating your menstrual cycle so that it is 28 days and four days in length will optimize your hormonal health, which will minimize breast soreness," Johnson explains. "Estrogen dominance is the usual breast pain culprit."
Avoid phytoestrogens. Hormone-disrupting phytoestrogens can have a negative effect on the adrenal and thyroid glands and can be found in soy products and certain plastics. "There are many phytoestrogens we cannot avoid, but there are many we can avoid," says Johnson. "Minimizing the use of plastics as well as minimizing soy intake can help to regulate estrogen levels."
Alkalinize your diet. By alkalinizing your diet, eliminating common inflammation-causing foods like wheat and dairy products, and adding turmeric into your nutrition regimen, you can help alleviate breast tenderness. "Turmeric is a natural anti-inflammatory, [and] I recommend getting the actual root, which looks a lot like ginger root, and making tea," recommends Johnson. "Frankincense has also been known to be effective for breast pain.
"Sometimes our digestion and elimination systems need to be aided in order for us to balance [and] eliminate excess hormones," she continues. Johnson recommends reading up on [WomanCode author] Alisa Vitti's advice on adjusting your diet and lifestyle to better regulate hormones.
Get your bra fitted. "There is controversy about whether bras help or hurt, [and] I think that depends on the kind of connective tissue that women have," Johnson notes. "Most women with larger breasts will feel relief from breast pain (and possible upper-back and neck pain) if their bra fits correctly."
When It's Time to Get Help from A Pro
We know that pain is necessary in order to protect us from harmful situations, and this "fight or flight" instinct also rings true when it comes to breast pain "[which] may be signaling you to pay closer attention to how you are caring for yourself," says Johnson. Though some pain can be alleviated with the help of birth control to regulate hormones, she says you may want to consult a medical professional if you're still experiencing discomfort while using the pill or any other form of birth control.
As the National Breast Cancer Foundation explains, breast tenderness and pain may not always be a sign of cancer. However, it's worth getting a professional opinion if you've noticed a lump in your breast that does not subside after your period, or if you're experiencing signs of infection, like a fever, pus, or redness on the breast skin.
Up next—read up on why those breast freckles may be a sign of a rare form of cancer.