Doctors running a mastalgia clinic in Cardiff, Wales, say that evening primrose oil is ‘the most promising first-line treatment, especially for patients under 25, since side-effects are uncommon and it has good patient acceptability.
In benign beast disease – known medically as mastalgia – the beasts feel lumpy and tender, and they have a granular sort of texture. The breasts can be painful and swollen, with inflamed fibrous tissue and cysts. All these symptoms can be worse just before a period begins. In these cases, the condition is said to be cyclical. There are also women with non-cyclical breast disease which does not vary with the menstrual cycle. No one knows exactly what causes benign breast cancer.
Many women who suffer from pain in their breasts may fear the worst and worry that they have breast cancer. So the most important thing to do first if you do have painful breasts is to see your doctor so he can send you for further investigations. These might include a physical examination, a mammography and perhaps a biopsy.
For women where cancer has been excluded, and who still suffer from unremitting breast pain, evening primrose oil is helpful in many cases.
Evening primrose oil and painful breasts
In a recent study, evening primrose oil was found to help 45% of women suffering from cyclical mastalgia, and 27% of women suffering from non-cyclical mastalgia.
The study was done at the University of Wales College of Medicine on 291 patients with severe persistent breast pain.
Evening primrose oil was one of three drugs used in the study. The others were danazol and bromocriptine. Although danazol had a success rate of 70% and bromocriptine 47% in cyclical mastalgia, both these drugs had side-effects in many women. That’s why the doctors conducting the study came to the conclusion that it was worth trying evening primrose oil first as it was virtually free of side-effects and easy to take. If evening primrose oil didn’t work, only then should danazol and bromocriptine be tried.
The Cardiff study showed that if one drug didn’t work, another drug might. So which drug is right for which woman can only be found by a process of trial and error. The dose of evening primrose oil used was six capsules of 500mg daily for three to six months. 95% of those responding to evening primrose did so within three months. Many women suffered a relapse shortly after stopping the evening primrose oil. This happened within eight weeks after the end of the course of treatment. Most women found that for the best results they had to go on taking the evening primrose oil for long courses of treatment. Most women found that for the best results they had to go on taking the evening primrose oil for long courses of treatment – a minimum of six months.
The overall results of the Cardiff study were that four out of five patients with cyclical mastalgia did gain relief of their symptoms on one of the drugs used.
The Cardiff study confirms the results of previous studies done in Cardiff and Dundee , which showed that evening primrose oil considerably helped women with benign breast disease, particularly when their symptoms were cyclical. These women found that the tenderness and lumpiness of their breasts was significantly reduced after three months on evening primrose oil (efamol). For women who had non-cyclical symptoms, ‘three months’ treatment on evening primrose oil produced a marked improvement in their breast tenderness, but the lumpiness did not improve.
Painful breasts can be a symptom of PMS. In the original St Thomas’s Hospital study, Dr Michael Brush found that six out of nine cases of severe breast discomfort with fibrous cysts responded to evening primrose oil treatment.
How evening primrose oil works in benign breast disease
Benign breast disease may have something to do with a high intake of saturated fat. There is an interesting relationship between heart disease in men, and benign breast disease and PMS in women. In societies where there is a high rate of death from heart disease among young and middle-aged men, there is a correspondingly high rate of breast disease and PMS in young and middle-aged women. So, wherever saturated fat intake is high relative to the intake of essential fatty acids, breast and menstrual cycle disorders become common.
If a high intake of saturated fat is associated with benign breast disease and other disorders, then increasing the intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids many reverse of prevent the development of benign breast disease and menstrual cycle problems. Women with breast disease have high rates of sebum production, which is a marker of EFA deficiency. Also, PGE1 inhibits some of the peripheral actions of prolactin, a hormone which has been implicated in both breast and menstrual cycle problems. A shortage of essential fatty acids in the diet does lead to excessive amounts of fibrous tissue. Cysts, which are another common symptom of benign breast cancer, may form because the body is for some reason making too much of the hormone prolactin and is also short of Prostaglandin E1. As a group, women with benign breast disease do seem to have higher levels of prolactin in their blood than they should. The idea behind giving evening primrose oil as a treatment for benign breast disease is that PGE1 can dampen down the effects of prolactin, may help prevent the development of cysts, and can help remove lumpiness in the breasts.
For best results, evening primrose oil should be taken in conjunction with a healthy, low saturated fat diet. In particular, the methylxanthine group of substances (caffeine, theophylline) found in coffee, tea and cola drinks should be excluded, as these substances increase the binding of prolactin to the breast. Removal of these stimulants from the diet has improved benign breast disease.
An interesting, unexpected and usually welcome effect of evening primrose oil in some women is that it seems to make their breasts bigger. No one knows exactly why.