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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Keeping Abreast of the Female Breast

"The reasons why the breasts of women are on the chest, whereas other animals more often have them elsewhere, are of three kinds:

First, the chest is a noble, notable and chaste place and thus they 
can be decently shown. 

Secondly, warmed by the heart, they return their warmth to it so that this organ strengthens itself. 

The third reason applies only to big breasts which, by covering the chest,warm, cover and strengthen the stomach.”

--Henri de Mondeville, the “Father of French Surgery,” 
in a letter to the King of France in the 14th century

Big breasts make strong stomachs? I don't know about this claim, but in what may be some of the only good news since the 14th century (at least to many adoring males), female breasts are getting bigger. In the Fifties, the average American woman wore a B-cup. The average-sized breast for women now is a C cup and lingerie stores sell sizes from H to KK.

And the cup runneth over! Bravissimo, a lingerie label for larger sized breasts, estimates at least 60 per cent of women wearing a C-cup should be wearing a D-cup – or larger. And it says the average British bra size is closer to a 34E than the 36C we are led to believe.

It seems society loves beautiful breasts, yet, until now, we have had a problem taking them seriously. Breasts – boobs, air bags, boulders, hooters – often lend themselves to embarrassment and goofiness. And, without a doubt, aesthetically lovely mammary assets can turn grown men into babbling idiots. Big breasts draw immediate attention and untold affection.

But, why are breasts getting bigger? And, is this growth a good thing?

Award-winning science writer Florence Williams attempts to answer these questions. Her research confirms that breasts are, indeed, bigger than ever. In her comprehensive “environmental history” of the only human body part without its own medical specialty, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (2012), Williams reveals that breasts are very complicated tissues.What is the most versatile organ in the female body can also kill. Breasts are made up of fat and estrogen receptors -- so they "soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges," Williams writes.

Florence claims she acquired an added interest with her subject after seeing scientific reports about industrial pollutants showing up in breast milk. She says she was breastfeeding at the time, and she did a piece for The New York Times Magazine in which she tested her own breast milk.

Florence says, “I FedExed a sample of my breast milk to a lab in Germany, and it came back with some slightly higher than above-average U.S. levels for flame retardants. But American levels in general, I learned, are 10 to 100 times higher than anywhere else in the world. The experience brought home to me, in this very dramatic way, how our bodies respond to environmental change. Our bodies are permeable in ways that we just don’t think about, or haven’t been taught to think about in the age of modern medicine.”

Of course, one expected finding was that, as a natural consequence of people being fatter than ever, breast size is increasing. This is not a revelation. What is astounding is that with this increase in size comes an increase in breast disease.

Williams says she discovered that a breast’s permeability makes it such an evolutionary powerhouse (lots and lots of estrogen receptors help human puberty occur at the optimal time; nutrient-rich breast milk makes for giant brains) – but that same permeability is also, partially, what causes one in eight women to develop breast cancer.

The author writes that “the day you (a woman) was born, your boobs took one look at you and were like, 'Oh, no. No. Absolutely not. Hey, does anyone know where I can get some poison?'” And, Williams' study found that “poison” is everywhere. Breasts, it turns out, are a particularly fine mirror of industrial lives. They accumulate more toxins than other organs, and process them differently.

(Florence Williams. Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. 2012)

Breasts are largely made up of fatty tissue, and chemicals love to accumulate in this fatty tissue. Here’s a partial list of those sources of chemicals from Williams: “paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline by-products, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides, and flame-retardants."

The chemicals contain lots of bad PBDE levels (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and octa-203 and penta-47 and dioxin and “lobule type 4” and other such enemies. She says one of the worst health concerns are flame retardants, and they are everywhere now: they are so bio-available that they are largely unavoidable.

The largest source of flame retardants in the human body is dust in homes. Many of the things in homes are filled with flame retardants, from upholstered furnishings to carpet padding to thermoplastics, like the casings of TV sets and computers.

(Lindy West. “Your Breasts Are Trying To Kill You.” Slate Book Review. May 5, 2012)

Then, it makes sense that Williams finds unsettling concerns about breast feeding. She concurs that “babies are cannibals and your breasts may be sexists.” Why? A male baby requires almost 1,000 megajoules of energy in his first year of life. “That is the equivalent,” Williams writes, “of one thousand light trucks moving one hundred miles per hour.”

And, as naturally follows, that energy comes from breast milk. That little dude sucks it right out of a woman “like the world’s chubbiest and least stealthy vampire.” Which, of course, is exactly how it’s supposed to be, but it’s not surprising that so many women are leery of breast-feeding with its chemical concerns.

It is a wide-held belief that breasts self-adjust for feeding boy or girl babies. Williams finds: “Milk for girls is thin but abundant, while boy milk is fattier and scarcer – the theory being that girls then must stick closer to their mothers for frequent feedings, thus absorbing their social roles, while boys are easily sated and have time to play and explore.”

Another expert, Dr Marilyn Glenville, a nutritionist specializing in women’s health and hormones, looks at the causes for increase in breast size and cites estrogen. Glenvillle says: “It’s clear that we’re not just talking about fat, but increased levels of breast tissue, too. So we have to look at what stimulates breast tissue growth – and that’s estrogen, the female sex hormone. Estrogen is what changes our body shape during puberty.”

The link between increased estrogen levels and bigger breasts is so clear that there are even “breast-enhancing” supplements on the market such as Perfect C Breast Enhancer capsules -- containing ingredients such as fennel seed and fenugreek, which are said to have estrogenic properties.

Dr Glenville reports: “It makes sense to look at the ways in which our exposure to all types of estrogen – the hormone our own bodies produce and estrogenic chemicals we come into contact with – has changed over the years.”

And, it turns out girls today reach puberty earlier than ever before, and are going on to have fewer children and breastfeeding for less time. As a result, women have far more periods than their ancestors had and they are exposed to more monthly surges of estrogen, which stimulates ovulation.

Researchers from the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Program, established by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science and published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found (2013) the respective ages at the onset of breast development varied by race, body mass index (obesity), and geographic location.

Breast development began in white, non-Hispanic girls, at a median age of 9.7 years, earlier than previously reported. Black girls continue to experience breast development earlier than white girls, at a median age of 8.8 years. The median age for Hispanic girls in the study was 9.3 years, and 9.7 years for Asian girls.

(Frank M. Biro, Louise C. Greenspan, Maida P. Galvez, Susan M. Pinney, 
Susan Teitelbaum, Gayle C. Windham, Julianna Deardorff, Robert L. Herrick, 
Paul A. Succop, Robert A. Hiatt, Lawrence H. Kushi, and Mary S. Wolff. 
"Onset of Breast Development in a Longitudinal Cohort." Pediatrics, November 2013)

In addition, today’s young women were born to the first generation of women on the contraceptive Pill. Early versions of the Pill contained far higher dosages of synthetic estrogen than they do today, and little is known about the long-term impact of this increased hormone exposure on future generations.

HRT also tops up depleting estrogen levels in menopausal women, who, like women on the Pill, often go up a cup-size or two when they begin a course of treatment. But it’s not just women on the Pill or HRT whose estrogen levels, and cup-size, might have increased as a result.

In 2002, research published by the Environment Agency showed that an ‘exquisitely potent’ form of estrogen -- which is believed to have entered the rivers through the urine of Pill and HRT-users — was responsible for changing the sex of half of all the male fish in British lowland rivers, and could be contaminating the water supply.

Now, it has been suggested that the influence of these xenoestrogens (literally “foreign estrogens”) could be responsible for the rapid decline in male sperm count and fertility. “We can’t assume these pollutants have no effect on us,” says Dr Glenville. “There are many questions still to be answered, but if xenoestrogens are potentially responsible for declining male fertility, they are potentially affecting women, too — and the proof could be in our bras.”

(Hannah Catsman. “Are Hormones in the Environment 
Making Women’s Breasts Larger?” Greer Prophet. February 06, 2011)

Here are a couple of other interesting theories on breast growth:
  • The introduction of intensive dairy farming methods to maximize production means that about two-thirds of the milk consumed comes from pregnant cows. To ensure that a dairy cow has a steady supply of milk, she is almost constantly pregnant. But taking milk from a pregnant cow, especially during the last few weeks of her pregnancy, raises questions about the high levels of estrogen and other hormones in milk and how they might affect those who consume milk every day.

  • Modern people also live more sedentary lifestyles these days, which may mean they metabolize these hormones less quickly. The cumulative effect of this may be a build-up of estrogen, which, over a long period, could alter natural body shape. It’s something we should take notice of.It’s possible that increased alcohol intake impairs the liver’s ability to help people metabolize and excrete excess hormones.

    As breast size continues to increase, huge, new concerns pile up. In the 1970s, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States was just under 10 percent (or about 1 in 10). Based on current incident rates, the National Cancer Center reports 12.4 percent of women born in the United States today will develop breast cancer at some time during their lives.

    (Florence Williams. “The wonder of breasts.” The Guardian. June 15, 2012) 

Breast Trivia

All mammals have mammary glands, but no other mammal has breasts as we do, sprouting at puberty and remaining regardless of our reproductive status.

A woman who has her first child before 20 has about half the lifetime risk of breast cancer as a non-mother or a mother who has her first child after 30.

Bernadino Ramazzini, a Renaissance-era doctor, was the first to notice that breast cancer was more common among nuns, which led to the link with nulliparity (never bearing a child).

A women's breasts are not fully developed until the third trimester of her pregnancy, when her mammary glands finally mature.

Breasts are the second most common site of tumors in the human body, next to the skin.

Human breast milk naturally contains many of the same cannabinoids found in marijuana, which are actually extremely vital for proper human development.

Nude Torso by Joaquin Torres-Garcia.
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