Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The female breast

Advice - Mind, Body and Family, Oct '14
By Dr. Tirthankar Guha Thakurta

The female breast is a magical organ – it nourishes, it entices, it nurtures. It stands out as a prominent distinguishing feature between an adult man and an adult woman. It is also one of the most neglected and misunderstood organs of the human body, its beauty and biology under-appreciated.

It is interesting to note that when a child starts developing in the mother's womb, she develops in the blueprint of a female. After about two months of development, the foetuses that carry a ‘Y’ chromosome in their cells start secreting the hormone testosterone. Testosterone now steers the development towards male characteristics. Those which do not carry a ‘Y’ chromosome continue to develop as female. This is why males also have breasts and nipples but their development is tuned down by testosterone.

The female breast is often epitomised as an organ of sensuality and nurturing. Development of breast is promoted by the hormone estrogen in females, the same hormone that imparts fertility in women. Evolutionary biologists believe that a large breast in females used to send strong sexual signals to their (heterosexual and bisexual?) male partners. But the same belief should perhaps be tested in the case of female partners too, and it is not as if women with small breasts do not find sexual partners.

Editor's note: A Google search for illustrations lead to this amazing
set of breastfeeding photographs from around the world:

There is also a (controversial) hypothesis that as human beings (read men and women) often have sex face-to-face (as opposed to four-legged mammals), the stimulation of female breasts became an important foreplay in humans and this led to a selective development of female breasts as an organ of sensuality in human beings. It is an interesting finding that the parts of the female brain that respond to sexual stimulation of the vagina and clitoris are also stimulated when the breasts and nipples are sexually stimulated.

The above hypothesis, however, needs to be questioned. Male nipples are also supplied with sensory nerves, which in many men cause a pleasant sexual arousal – whether in the case of female-to-male sex or male-to-male sex (which, if you want to extend the argument, can also happen face-to-face). And yet the male breast does not seem to have had selective development.

These hypotheses apart what is important is that the stimulation of nipples in both sexes (and irrespective of sexual orientation) causes the release of the love and bonding hormone oxytocin. This is a hormone with many functions. The psychological effects of oxytocin include a feeling of emotional security and bonding that help couples develop long-term attractions and mothers develop a strong attachment with their nursing infant.

The female breast undergoes significant changes during pregnancy and lactation. The breast enlarges, produces milk and undergoes a permanent dark pigmentation of nipples and the surrounding areola. It is also unique that the hormonal interplay during pregnancy alone causes synthesis of milk in the female breast, though the raw materials are always present in the body.

A leading cause of breast related morbidity in women is breast cancer. Several genes mediate breast cancer; thus, it may run in families. The risk is increased by prolonged estrogen therapy, estrogen-containing contraceptive pills and smoking. The risk is higher in women who do not breastfeed their infants. Women are encouraged to undertake a regular self-examination of breasts to look for any lumps or nipple changes for early diagnosis of breast cancer. Detected early, breast cancers can be successfully treated with little or no serious cosmetic deformity to the affected breast.

The greatest hurdle in promoting good breast hygiene and health is social taboo. Breasts are highly objectified in our patriarchal society, and it is the same society that is embarrassed to see a mother breastfeed her child in public. If we wish to promote breast health and respect, the first step has to be to start a healthy communication on breasts – out and loud!

Readers may also want to read The Male Breast in the October 2013 issue of Varta.

Confused? Disturbed? Just inquisitive? Write in any query on the mind, body and family to vartablog@gmail.com, and Dr. Tirthankar Guha Thakurta, teaching faculty at a Kolkata-based medical college, will be happy to answer them – with due respect to confidentiality.


  1. Replies
    1. Dr Tirthankar Guha ThakurtaOctober 19, 2014 2:24 am

      Thank you Souvik! :-)

  2. It is very educative and govt should make compulsery arrangements to check up breast cancer test