The female breasts, which are also called mammary glands, is primarily tissue and ligaments that overlay the chest muscles. The main function of the breast is to give nourishment to offspring by providing milk that contains proteins, fats, carbohydrate (lactose), and micro-nutrients. Immunological protection is also offered to the child through breastfeeding when colostrum, a fluid rich in minerals and antibodies is secreted just after delivery. Colostrum can help to prevent autoimmune diseases and certain allergies, along with protection against some infections. Female breasts will undergo many changes in size and shape throughout a woman’s lifetime due to the effects of menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause.
Female Breasts & The Menstrual Cycle
Each month, before menstruation, the ovaries produce a hormone called estrogen. As the estrogen increases through ovulation, another hormone called progesterone takes over and stimulates the formation of milk glands. This can cause the breasts to become tender, and swell. The glands are preparing for a possible pregnancy and return to normal after menstruation begins. Often the texture of the breast may also change during the menstrual cycle and can make them feel lumpy.
Changes During Pregnancy
The hormone progesterone again takes over during pregnancy and can cause changes and increased blood flow in the female breasts. This is sometimes one of the earliest signs that a woman is pregnant. The dark area of skin around the nipple, called the areola will begin to swell followed by the breasts themselves swelling. Many pregnant women will experience tingling and soreness in the nipples along with tenderness down the sides of the breasts. This is due to increased blood flow and the milk duct system that is growing along with the formation of additional lobules. These are the areas where milk is produced just before and after childbirth. As the pregnancy progresses, many other hormones come in to play, causing the areolas to darken and enlarge, and blood vessels to become more pronounced in the breasts. The breasts may also become itchy and stretch marks may appear as they enlarge. The bumps located in the areola of the breast are oil-producing glands and will become more pronounced in preparation for nursing offspring.
Female Breasts & Menopause
A woman will usually reach menopause around her late forties to early fifties. Estrogen and progesterone levels will begin to fluctuate then drop. With this reduction, the female breast tissue loses elasticity and becomes dehydrated. This tissue that once made milk will begin to shrink and lose its shape. The breasts will often start to drooping at this time. The breasts are also more likely to develop a benign cyst, making them feel lumpier. However, menopause can often help to end breast tenderness and pain brought on by menstrual periods. As these changes in your breasts occur, it is important to remember to care for them:
- Maintain a healthy weight – fluctuations can cause the breasts to sag prematurely.
- Get a good supportive bra that is the right type and size for you – to help fight against gravity.
- Strive to practice good posture – this can elevate the bust and give it better support.
- Always wear a sports bra – when running or exercising for less bouncing that leads to sagging.
- Do regular self breast exams and have yearly mammograms – which can aid in cancer detection (after age forty)
Knowing the changes that occur in each of the above-mentioned cycles is also a very important part of properly caring for the breasts. In doing so, a woman can sometimes quickly detect a problem that may arise. In some cases this can literally save her life.