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Breasts: a natural and unnatural history- a book that every woman should read

Breasts: a natural and unnatural history | A Book Every Woman Should Read via NaturallyMyDear.com

When I ponder my list of books on loan from the library I surprise myself.

Books on midwifery – check.

The effect of wheat on our health – check.

And now breasts – what?  Yes, breasts.

Who checks out a book on breasts? I mean since when did I get so geeky? I actually enjoy reading books about medical research. Me, the girl who didn’t particularly enjoy science in school. And now I can’t get enough of it! So take this book recommendation with a grain of salt, but IF YOU ARE A WOMAN YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.

Ok, men. You can read it too.

Allison’s Book Jacket Summary

Florence Williams, a mother of two and a science reporter, writes honestly and humorously about the one organ that makes women super special. Women can grow people and sustain life. But none of this can happen without breasts. Truly adaptable, breasts carry out different functions throughout our lives. They are a bellwether for the state of our public health. And even though we know so much more about them now than we ever have they are severely underrepresented in the field of biological research. Williams does a wonderful job of educating her reader with the latest research while entertaining at the same time often volunteering herself for the procedures and research she’s investigating.

There is no way I can begin to cover all the great stuff that’s in this book but I’ll try to at least  pique your interest so you’ll go buy, download or check this book out.

Chapter 1, “For Whom The Bells Toll” covers evolutionary theories on why mammals developed breasts.

Regardless of your view on evolution this is comedic reading. Primarily because most the evolutionary scientists that Williams spoke with are male and their theories focused more on attracting mates rather than sustaining life.

Chapters 2 and 3, (“Circular Beginnings” and “Plumbing: A Primer”) cover the way that mammals are grouped together according to their possession of mammary glands and then how they work.

I learned so much about the amazing properties of breasts in chapter 3. Did you know that while all some organs are basically developed upon birth, breasts build themselves around puberty, develop further in pregnancy and finally rearrange themselves after the weaning of a child(ren) and during menopause? Breasts are hard workers!

Chapter 4, “Fill Her Up” takes Williams to Texas, the breast augmentation capital of the world, to tour a top plastic surgeon’s facility.

She interviews breast augmentation clients, as well as the first recipient of silicone implants who was, at the publication of the book, 79. This chapter was completely eye opening for me. I had no idea there were so many complications and risks associated with breast augmentation. Although implants have come along way from their crude beginnings, in my not-so-humble opinion, women who are considering this procedure should read this chapter before heading to their consultation appointment.

Chapter 5, “Toxic Assets” explains how it’s possible for synthetic chemicals to mimic, overstimulate or block hormones essential to reproduction, cognitive, thyroid and liver function to name a few.

One of the most common synthetic chemicals that we encounter today is BPA. Bisphenol A, orginally developed as a possible drug to prevent miscarriage, which eventually found a useful niche in the production of plastic goods. Due to the strength of its dual hexagonal shape of 6 bonded carbons it is an ideal candidate for manufacturing purposes. Unfortunately that shape is also similar to the shape of estrogen and our cell receptors see it as such and welcome it in. And because breasts are a most sensitive yet indiscriminate organ, constantly “scanning their environment” for new hormones in high alert for pregnancy (it takes 9 months for the breastfeeding machinery to get up and running), they can be easily duped by these foreign invaders. I might be stating the obvious for some, but inadequate hormone levels or overabundant hormone levels = bad for your health. Scientists now call these xenoestrogens “endocrine disruptors”. This chapter also touched on research that showed small windows of opportunity where a mother’s exposure to these endocrine disruptors can greatly affect a fetus’ development.

Chapter 6, “Shampoo, Macaroni and The American Girl: Spring Comes Early” explores why puberty is arriving earlier and earlier for American girls.

Williams and her daughter participate in a body burden experiment sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute. Urine samples given before the experiment gave researchers a baseline reading of synthetic chemical levels for Williams and her daughter. After 3 days of following a long list of strict guidelines for avoiding chemical exposures (such as eating organic, unprocessed food which had not touched plastic and not driving an automobile) their chemical levels went down significantly. Building on the information from the previous chapter Williams touches on how these exposures might be triggering the early onset of puberty. Why would this matter? Early puberty, coupled with later first pregnancies mean more hormones cycling through the body for a longer amount of time than is good for us, making us more susceptible to breast cancer. While this chapter might drive some nuts with a new list of things they should now try to avoid, it does offer a lot of hope for those wanting to move themselves (and their daughters) from the “likely-to-get-cancer” column to the “less-likely-to-get-cancer” column.

Chapter 7, “The Pregnancy Paradox” gives a breakdown on pregnancy as a safeguard against breast cancer.

Here are some of the findings that current research has uncovered. Women who become mothers before age 20, have a 50% less chance of getting breast cancer as compared to women who never bear children or women who wait until their thirties. Additional pregnancies in her 20’s seemed to further protect a mother from breast cancer. It seems that the spike in HCG (Human Chorionic Gonadotropin) levels during pregnancy may play a role in this protection. In one study virgin lab rats were given a cancer inducing chemical. Some of the rats were also prepared beforehand and given HCG. Their cancer cells divided less. The mammary cells of the HCG rats also shut down estrogen receptors and expressed more cancer fighting genes. Another study found that unfortunately women who become mothers in their 30’s who have multiple children, carry more of a risk for a small subgroup (10-20%) of breast cancer that resists treatment. This chapter was also eye opening – With the average age of marriage rising and family size dwindling, will the risk of breast cancer continue to rise as well? If women had this knowledge would it affect their decisions regarding marriage, careers and motherhood?

Chapter 8, “What’s For Dinner?” Williams honestly recounts her own journey with breastfeeding her first child and all that she learned through that experience.

She also tells us the history of breastfeeding and it’s seasons of popularity and approval or disapproval from the medical establishment. She highlights some of the uniques challenges modern mothers face in the area of breastfeeding and touches on the current research on the benefits of breastfeeding as studied in America. She ends with a teaser, hinting at how this same research might differ in foreign countries whose children do not have identical diets, education and environmental conditions affecting their IQ points, obesity, disease, etc.

Chapter 9, “Holy Crap: Herman, Hamlet And The All Important Human Gut”, follows Williams to Lima, Peru where she speaks firsthand with scientists at the 15th annual meeting of the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation.

This chapter focused on the special properties of breast milk and their implications for human health. Breast milk is some crazy cool stuff. Did you know that breast milk has an estimated 800 species of bacteria in it? Researchers suspect they may act as a kind of natural vaccine. Did you know that breast milk also contains an estimated 200 oligosaccharides (which exist nowhere else in nature)? They are a special kind of sugar that is indigestible by human infants yet feed the many beneficial bacteria that live in our guts. This helps us fight off infections by working with good bacteria and policing bad bacteria. Williams points out that since these amazing components of breast milk are still being studied, there are no ways for formula companies to replicate them. And the components that could be replicated would be rather costly. Thank goodness breast milk is free.

Apparently breast milk is also super smart. The breasts know before we do what the gender of our infant is and prepare an appropriate formulation for either a boy or girl.  For boys a fattier milk in lesser quantity and for girls a thinner milk in higher quantity. For both – a endocannabinoid that regulates an infant’s appetite. Williams points out that formula does not contain this substance and could be why formula fed children have been shown to maintain a higher caloric intake than their breast-fed peers. I’ve never thought of my breasts as nutritional gurus but now I will, thanks to Williams.

Chapter 10, “Sour Milk” can only be summarized in one quote.

If human breast milk, nature’s perfect food, came with stamped with an ingredients label, it would read something like this: 4 percent fat, vitamins A,C, E and K, sugars, essential minerals, proteins, enzymes, and antibodies. It contains 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of everything a baby needs to grow, plus as we’ve seen, a solid hedge of extras to help ward off a lifetime of diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer. Despite exhaustion, visiting relatives, and dirty laundry, every time we nurse our babies, the love hormone oxytocin courses out of our pituitaries like a warm bath. Human milk is like ice cream, penicilin, and the drug ecstacy all wrapped up in two pretty packages. But read down the label a little farther, and the fine print sounds considerably less appetizing: DDT, PCB’s, trichloroethelyne, percholorate, dibenzofurans, mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic.

Yeah… you’ll want to read this chapter. Sadly, our breasts are contaminated nutritional gurus.

Chapter 11, “An Unfamiliar Wilderness: Periods, The Pill And HRT” covers the effects of extra hormones (synthetic and natural) on our bodies.

Williams explains the roles of estrogen and progesterone in our bodies as well as the vulnerabilities to cancer women are under when taking hormonal birth control as well as hormone replacement therapy. Williams outlines the research of Malcom Pike, who discovered as early as the 80’s that increased hormones make women more likely to develop cancer (breast and ovarian) yet the practice of prescribing HRT (a lucrative one by the way) only saw a very recent decrease due to British studies published in 2002 and 2003. Particularly interesting to me was the discussion regarding what scientific role menopause might play for women.

Chapter 12, “The Few. The Proud. The Afflicted: Can Marines Solve The Puzzle of Breast Cancer?” sheds light on the cases of male breast cancer.

Williams visits Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina which boasts the most contaminated public water in the US due to benzene, PCE and TCE making its way into the groundwater from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. There she meets up with Michael Partain, conceived and born on the base, who was diagnosed with male breast cancer at the age of 39. She discusses the role of the Marines in their quest to not only clean up this Superfund site (a site marked by the Environmental Protection Agency as a national priority) but also to aid the government in using this unfortunate situation for research.

Chapter 13, “Are You Dense? The Aging Breast” covers breast cancer screenings and her own family history of breast cancer.

In her own search for an accurate family medical history Williams writes about the way breast cancer was treated in previous generations, sometimes making it difficult to get correct information. She even mail orders the death certificate for one relative to get a clearer picture of her own risk for developing certain cancers (with the help of a genetic counselor). Williams also discusses new technologies for more accurate mammograms as well as improved self exam techniques (a vertical strip pattern “mowing the lawn” is now considered to be more precise than the dizzying spiral pattern we’ve all come to learn).

Chapter 14, “The Future of Breasts” is a short summary.

A summary of her own thoughts as well as a few promising studies/treatments for breast cancer. More than anything though, Williams gives a call to preventative action.

I really enjoyed this book and learned a ton. I hope you will check it out!

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6 Responses to “Breasts: a natural and unnatural history- a book that every woman should read”

  1. jane

    Very informative! It sounds like this is stuff every woman should know!

    Reply
    • Lauren Lacayo Rodas

      This was a great book! Thanks for the great summary and insight. We love our glass water bottles and other small changes we’ve made to become healthier. Keep the book suggestions coming!

      Reply

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