What causes gynecomastia (breast growth in men)?

By naturopath Margaret Jasinska

Gynecomastia means overdevelopment or enlargement of breast tissue in men or boys. The breasts become larger and often grow unevenly. The condition is often caused by changes in levels of the female hormone oestrogen and the male hormone testosterone, but there can be other causes as well.

Gynecomastia is fairly common, especially in older men who are overweight. Although not harmful, breast development in men can signify underlying hormonal and metabolic problems which could be harmful.

What causes male breast development?

As men age, their testosterone level naturally starts to fall. It doesn’t fall as dramatically as in women who reach menopause, but nonetheless, testosterone does decline. Overweight men, diabetic men and men with an unhealthy liver usually have lower testosterone than slim and fit men. This occurs for a number of reasons; fat cells (particularly those around the abdomen) contain an enzyme called aromatase. This enzyme converts the testosterone in the body into oestrogen. Therefore overweight men may be turning a lot of the testosterone in their bodies into oestrogen. Oestrogen stimulates the development of breast tissue.

The liver has an important role to play in breast development too. It is the liver’s job to break down excess oestrogen that isn’t required and then excrete it from the body. If the liver is sluggish, or fatty, or inflamed, it cannot do this job properly and oestrogen can accumulate. Men who eat a lot of sugar or carbohydrate have lower levels of testosterone in their bloodstream. This is common in those with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.

Other potential causes of gynecomastia include:

  •  High consumption of alcohol (especially beer) or marijuana
  • Steroids such as prednisone or dexamethasone
  • Over active thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
  • Liver disease such as cirrhosis or cancer
  • Problems with the pituitary gland in the brain, or adrenal glands
  • A side effect of some medication used to treat epilepsy

Help for gynecomastia

The best way to treat this condition is to address the underlying cause. Some men attempt to increase their testosterone level by using testosterone cream, patches or injections. These remedies are often not successful because if a man is overweight and has an unhealthy liver, the supplemental testosterone will just get converted into more oestrogen. This can worsen the original problem and may also raise the risk of enlargement of the prostate.

It is important to improve the health of the liver.

The liver plays a major role in hormone metabolism and fat metabolism. If your liver is healthy you will find it significantly easier to maintain a healthy body weight and your liver will break down excess oestrogen effectively. The eating principles in the book Fatty Liver: You Can Reverse It will help to keep your liver working well regardless of whether you have a fatty liver or not.

Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance promote fat accumulation around the abdomen.

This is the most dangerous part of the body to carry excess weight because of the increased risk of heart disease. Fat cells in the torso also make more aromatase, which increases oestrogen production. People with excess fat around their torso usually have elevated blood insulin levels. There is information to help you in our book called Diabetes Type 2: You Can Reverse It.

If weight loss is a challenge for you, try to increase the amount of protein and healthy fats in your diet.

Protein is the most satiating nutrient. Ensuring you eat enough helps reduce cravings for carbohydrate and sugar. Examples of good sources of protein include seafood, poultry, whey protein powder, eggs and red meat. Examples of healthy fats include olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, macadamia nuts, butter, ghee and the fat on animal foods. Protein and fat help to keep you full, and when combined with plenty of fresh vegetables, help to facilitate weight loss.

Exercise helps to raise testosterone in men.

Particularly muscle strengthening exercise such as lifting weights. Exercising regularly also makes losing weight easier; it improves sleep quality and mental outlook.

We have a new Ultimate Sports Pack to support your body during exercise.

These strategies can help to improve your health, but if you are concerned about any symptoms you experience, please consult your doctor.

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