Friday, May 20, 2011

Breast Milk Production and Breast Cancer Warning Signs

Excessive breast milk production, also known as galactorrhea, is almost always a nuisance and almost never a sign of a more serious health condition. In some women, however, producing too much breast milk is a signal that seeing a doctor for breast cancer detection is a must. Here is an explanation of what causes galactorrhea, how to handle it through simple measures, and when to see a doctor.

Lactation, or the production of breast milk, is a normal condition in women occurring after delivery of a baby. Galactorrhea is the untimely production of breast milk. Many women who have had a baby can express a small amount of breast milk up to years after childbirth. Secretion of breast milk at other times, however, is a relatively rare condition usually signaling a hormonal imbalance.

The symptoms of galactorrhea include:

  • Clear or milky nipple discharge (not discolored)
  • Discharge when pressure applied to breast
  • Cracking around the nipple
  • Possible lump in the breast

The production of breast milk is controlled by the hormone prolactin, which is secreted by the pituitary gland in the brain. In about 30 percent of cases, galactorrhea in women is associated with a tumor of the pituitary gland. When excessive milk production is associated with a pituitary tumor, there will also be skipped menstrual periods and measurably high prolactin levels in the bloodstream. Prolactin levels can also be elevated when there are tumors in the ovaries (in women) or testicles (in men). When galactorrhea is due to a hormonal imbalance, both breasts are involved.

Rarely a Sign of Breast Cancer

Milk production from one breast, especially after menopause, is in rare cases a sign of breast cancer. When breast cancer is a cause, however, the expressed milk is usually discolored. More often galactorrhea involving a single breast is associated with a benign tumor.

Caused by Many Medications and Herbs

Many medications cause galactorrhea as a side effect. These include oral contraceptives, antidepressants, tranquilizers, heroin, morphine, and some medications for high blood pressure. Galactorrhea can also occur after using the herbs anise, blessed thistle, fennel, fenugreek, milk thistle, or silymarin.

Release of breast milk by women is not uncommon during sexual stimulation. Scratchy blouses or poorly fitted bras can aggravate the condition.

More Likely to Be a Nuisance than a Health Issue

Galactorrhea is more likely to be a nuisance than a serious medical condition. Women should consult a doctor promptly, however, if unexpected milk production occurs with skipped menstrual periods, headaches, trouble seeing, loss of interest in sex, acne, or growth of hair on the chest or chin. There are no established natural health practices for men with this condition. Men with galactorrhea should consult an endocrinologist.

An Herb for Galactorrhea

Often misunderstood as increasing milk production, vitex, also known as chasteberry, has been used for centuries for decreasing unwanted milk production.

The fruits of the chasteberry tree contain iridoids and flavo noids that mimic human sex hormones. They have a special influence on the pituitary gland’s manufacturing of prolactin, modulating the brain’s production of the reward chemical dopamine in such a way that prolactin production is decreased, especially during times of stress.

These compounds also bind to endorphin receptors in the brain, lowering the sensation of stress. Over 50 percent of women who use vitex will also experience fewer unpleasant symptoms during their premenstrual period.

While vitex is the best natural treatment for galactorrhea, there are a number of precautions for its use. It may be necessary to take this herb for up to 3 months, or 3 menstrual cycles, to get results. Women who use vitex should also use contraception. While the herb does not cause birth defects, in rare instances it appears to induce multiple ovulations resulting in twins and triplets.

Although women who have galactorrhea are not likely to be on estrogen replacement therapy (ERT), the herb should not be combined with ERT (Premarin, Premphase, Prempr, Provera), since it can potentially slow the rate at which the liver removes estrogen from circulation. Men trying to become fathers should not take vitex, since laboratory experiments with dogs indicate that it interferes with sperm production. Most important, vitex should not be taken with the commonly prescribed medication for galactorrhea, bromocriptine (Parlodel), since the combination can cause unpredictable effects on anxiety and mood.

Additional Considerations for Galactorrhea

void stimulating your breasts.

Avoid touching your nipples or having your nipples touched during sexual activity.

Don’t do breast self-exams more than once a month.

Unexpected milk production is a symptom of several health conditions.

  • In women who are not pregnant, missing a period plus galactorrhea is frequently a sign of hypothyroidism. There will also be fatigue, dry skin, sensitivity to cold weather, and unintentional weight gain. Restoring normal levels of thyroid hormone stops galactorrhea. 
  • Unexpected milk production in both breasts with headache, blurred vision, and loss of peripheral vision can be a sign of a pituitary tumor. If you experience these symptoms, see a physician. 
  • Reddish breast milk produced by one breast can be a sign of a breast tumor. See a physician for breast cancer testing. 
  • An outbreak of acne or growth of hair on the chest or chin with galactorrhea is a symptom requiring urgent medical attention. This combination of symptoms can result from ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer in a relatively early, treatable stage.
You may also be interested in my recent article on a Pakistani herb for breast cancer.

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