How Your Gut Microbiome Determines Breast Health | Gut-Breast Connection

If you just read the title of this blog post and furrowed your brows, I get it. A gut-breast connection might seem far-fetched. How could seemingly two unrelated parts of your body be so separate, and yet so connected? The breasts are part of the reproductive system, and your gut microbiome is part of the digestive system, right? Why would they be related at all? 

If you asked yourself any of these questions, you’re not alone. So let's dive into the microbiome-breast health connection and why it not only exists, it’s influencing your health right this very minute.

What does it mean to have healthy breasts?

Before we dive into the Gut-Breast Connection, let’s talk about how we define healthy breasts in the first place. As they write in a Mayo Clinic online publication, “Breast health begins with a sense of what’s normal for your breasts (breast awareness).” That means doing regular self breast exams and paying attention to how your breast structure may fluctuate during your monthly cycle, or during major hormonal transitions like puberty, menopause, and pregnancy. For example, it’s not atypical to experience changes in breast texture and experience breast pain in the second half of your menstrual cycle, but lots of pain could be a sign of estrogen dominance or fibrocystic breast disease, which is caused by the thickening of the breast tissue. 

Having healthy breasts also means keeping up with recommended screenings, like mammograms, breast ultrasounds, and clinical breast exams. So when do you know that something is up? If you have any of the following, I recommend seeing your doctor right away: 

  • Any unusual lump or mass
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Unexpected discharge from the nipple

Breast health is a facet of health that all women should be up-to-date on. We’ll be reminded of this over and over this month, as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The Gut-Breast Connection Explained… gut microbiome + breast health

Although the breast tissue and the gut microbiome exist in very different parts of your body, they are surprisingly connected. For example, PMS symptoms, including breast tenderness, can be associated with an altered gut microbiome. One study showed that increased intestinal permeability — AKA, leaky gut — can affect progesterone and contribute to the severity of physical PMS symptoms, such as breast pain and tenderness.

And then, there are the almost endless connections between the gut microbiome and breast cancer. Most of these connections have to do with estrogen, the main female reproductive hormone, which plays a role in breast health and breast cancer. Research shows that there is a subset of the gut microbiome, called the estrobolome, that centers around estrogen metabolism. These bacteria have the ability to metabolize estrogen and control estrogen levels in the body. When these bacteria get out of whack, estrogen levels can become too high, which can increase the risk factor of breast cancer. I’m in agreement with the authors of one study who concluded that, “Future research attention should include a more extensive focus on the role of the human gut microbiota in breast cancer.” 

And then, there’s the bacteria that live within the breast tissue itself. Yep, you read that right!

Does breast tissue have its own microbiome?

When I say the word “microbiome,” there’s a great chance you immediately think about the digestive system. But the truth is, even though I’m “America’s Gut Doctor,” the word “microbiome” doesn’t just exist in the context of the gut. In fact, your mouth, lungs, skin — and yes, your breasts! — have their own microbiomes too. Study after study has shown that the composition of the bacteria living in and on the breast may be a risk factor for breast cancer; in fact, some scientists are wondering if it may even be a method for early detection or risk management. 

Even more interesting, studies show that factors like obesity and a poor diet can influence the breast and gut microbiomes in ways that increase or decrease a person’s risk for disease. See how almost every health issue can be traced back to diet and gut health? Even after years of practicing medicine and reading studies just like this, I still find this absolutely fascinating! A world we cannot see with the naked eye has a huge impact on the health of its host — the human body.

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