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Leaky Breasts and Hypothyroidism

A look at the link between leaky breasts – known as galactorrhea – and hypothyroidism.
Leaky Breasts and Hypothyroidism
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Are you a woman or man experiencing unexpected breast milk production? It could be galactorrhea, a condition where your breasts leak a milky discharge unrelated to breastfeeding or pregnancy. You may not realize that hypothyroidism can cause elevated levels of prolactin, the hormone that stimulates milk production, and lead to galactorrhea. This article will explore the surprising problem of leaky breasts in people with hypothyroidism.

What is galactorrhea, and what are its signs and symptoms?

Galactorrhea describes milk production or a milk-like discharge from the breasts in someone not pregnant or breastfeeding. It’s estimated that galactorrhea affects as many as 20% of women and a much smaller percentage of men. It most often affects people under the age of 40.

One of the most apparent galactorrhea symptoms is the secretion of milk or a milky substance from the nipples. This discharge may be spontaneous or may occur when the breasts are stimulated, such as during sexual activity, clothing friction, or even just touching the nipples.

The discharge can vary in color and consistency. It is typically milky or clear but can also be yellow, green, or bloody in rare cases. The quantity of the discharge can range from just a few drops to excessive amounts.

Apart from the abnormal breast discharge, galactorrhea can also be accompanied by other symptoms. Some individuals may experience breast tenderness or swelling, causing discomfort and making daily activities challenging. Additionally, some women may also notice changes in their menstrual cycle. Irregular periods or the complete absence of menstruation, known as amenorrhea, can be seen in individuals with galactorrhea.

In some cases, galactorrhea may be associated with hormonal changes. For example, some people notice changes in their sexual desire or experience difficulties achieving or maintaining an erection. Women may also experience changes in their fertility and have difficulty getting pregnant.

What causes galactorrhea?

One of the most common causes of galactorrhea is an imbalance in hormone levels, particularly an increase in the hormone prolactin, known as hyperprolactinemia. Prolactin is responsible for stimulating milk production in the breasts. When prolactin levels are elevated, it can lead to milk production, even in the absence of pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Hyperprolactinemia is rare, affecting less than 1% of the population. Experts suggest that there are two primary causes of hyperprolactinemia:

  • a prolactinoma – a non-cancerous prolactin-releasing tumor in the pituitary gland
  • hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid

Other factors that can cause hyperprolactinemia include:

Stress and emotional factors can also play a role in galactorrhea. Stress can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones, including prolactin. Emotional distress, anxiety, and depression can all contribute to hormonal imbalances and the development of galactorrhea.

Specific medical conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, and certain types of tumors can disrupt hormonal balance and lead to galactorrhea. Additionally, chest wall irritation or injury, such as from surgery or trauma, can stimulate the breasts and cause milk production.

How is galactorrhea diagnosed?

Here are the key steps involved in diagnosing galactorrhea:

Medical History Assessment: When you visit a healthcare professional for galactorrhea, they will begin by taking your medical history. This includes asking about your symptoms, their duration, and any factors that may exacerbate or relieve them.

Physical Examination: A thorough physical examination will be conducted to check for any abnormalities in the breasts, such as lumps, tenderness, or skin changes. The healthcare professional will also assess other symptoms you may be experiencing, such as menstrual irregularities or changes in vision.

Hormonal Analysis: Since hormonal imbalances are a common cause of galactorrhea, a blood test will likely be ordered to measure hormone levels in your body. Bloodwork can help identify abnormalities in hormone production or regulation, particularly prolactin levels. High levels of prolactin – the hormone responsible for milk production – can indicate galactorrhea.

Thyroid Function Tests: Your healthcare professional should also evaluate your thyroid function because undiagnosed -- or poorly treated -- hypothyroidism can contribute to galactorrhea.

Imaging Tests: In some cases, imaging tests may be necessary to evaluate the structure and functionality of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, plays a crucial role in regulating hormone production. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans can help detect any tumors or abnormalities in the pituitary gland that may be causing the galactorrhea.

Additional Tests: Depending on the individual case, further tests may be recommended to rule out other potential causes or to determine the specific underlying condition. These tests may include a pregnancy test (to rule out pregnancy-related lactation), a breast ultrasound (to evaluate breast tissue), or a mammogram (to screen for breast abnormalities).

What is the connection between leaky breasts and hypothyroidism

The relationship between hypothyroidism, hyperprolactinemia, and galactorrhea lies in the complex interplay of hormones within the body. The thyroid gland and the pituitary gland – responsible for producing and regulating prolactin  –  are both part of the endocrine system. Therefore, any disruption or imbalance in the thyroid gland can potentially affect the pituitary gland and its hormone production.

While hypothyroidism itself does not directly cause galactorrhea, galactorrhea is considered a rare symptom of hypothyroidism, occurring in a small percentage of cases. Research has generally shown that hypothyroidism can lead to increases in prolactin secretion or activity, causing an elevation of prolactin levels known as prolactinemia. This increase seems to come from thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH), which acts as a stimulant for prolactin production from the pituitary gland. When the thyroid fails to produce enough of its hormones, TRH output increases in response. Because of this rise in TRH production, there is then increased secretion of prolactin and higher levels in the bloodstream.

How is galactorrhea treated?

If you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism and are experiencing galactorrhea, it is essential to understand your treatment options. Here are some common approaches taken to manage galactorrhea:

Thyroid Hormone Replacement Therapy: The primary treatment for hypothyroidism is replacing deficient thyroid hormones with synthetic versions. By taking thyroid hormone medication, such as levothyroxine, the levels of thyroid hormones in the body can be restored to normal. This treatment helps to correct the hormonal imbalance responsible for galactorrhea in many cases.

Medication to Lower Prolactin Levels: In some instances, elevated prolactin levels may persist even after thyroid hormone replacement therapy. Medications called dopamine agonists, like bromocriptine or cabergoline, may be prescribed in such cases. These medications reduce prolactin production in the pituitary gland, suppressing excessive milk production.

Regular Monitoring: Once you start treatment for hypothyroidism and galactorrhea, regular check-ups with your healthcare provider are crucial. Monitoring your thyroid function and prolactin levels will help ensure your treatment is effective and adjusted, if necessary. Any changes in symptoms, such as persistent galactorrhea or recurrence, should be promptly discussed with your healthcare provider.

Lifestyle Modifications: Making certain lifestyle modifications can also aid in managing both hypothyroidism and galactorrhea. These may include maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, and getting adequate sleep. Additionally, avoiding nipple stimulation and wearing supportive clothing can help reduce milk production and minimize discomfort.

The good news is that galactorrhea in hypothyroid patients can be effectively treated, primarily by addressing the underlying hypothyroidism through thyroid hormone replacement therapy. Additionally, medications to lower prolactin levels and regular monitoring of thyroid function and prolactin levels are often essential to managing this condition.

A note from Paloma

Though there are many potential causes for this condition, it should be noted that if you are suffering from galactorrhea alongside signs/symptoms typically related to an underactive thyroid – such as fatigue, weight gain, mood changes, irregular menstrual cycles, etc. – it is highly recommended that you consult with a thyroid expert and get complete diagnostic testing to evaluate your levels of thyroid hormones. Only through accurate laboratory findings will it be possible to identify whether your thyroid is a factor in galactorrhea.

The Paloma thyroid test kit makes it easy to monitor your thyroid hormone levels affordably from the comfort of your home. The test kit provides accurate thyroid levels with convenient and painless finger-prick testing.

If you want to work with a dedicated team of thyroid experts for your hypothyroidism care, consider becoming a Paloma member. You’ll have access to virtual visits with practitioners, discounted thyroid test kits, supplements, nutritional and health coaching, and much more to help you optimize your thyroid and overall health.

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Galactorrhea: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Management & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic.

Shiva Kumar Y. Gosi, Garla VV. Galactorrhea. Published January 30, 2019.

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Blaye A et al., 2009 The decreasing prevalence Of hypothyrodism: The Hisayama Study BMJ Open 9(7) 007838 doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-007838 https://bmjopen.bmjpublishinggroupstrustnetworkcom/publications

Groff TR, Shulkin BL, Utiger RD, Talbert LM. Amenorrhea-galactorrhea, hyperprolactinemia, and suprasellar pituitary enlargement as presenting features of primary hypothyroidism. Obstet Gynecol. 1984 Mar;63(3 Suppl):86S-89S. PMID: 6700889.

Staff familydoctor org editorial. Galactorrhea. Published October 14, 2022. Accessed September 13, 2023.

Hyperprolactinemia. Published November 19, 2019. Accessed September 13, 2023.

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Mary Shomon

Patient Advocate

Mary Shomon is an internationally-recognized writer, award-winning patient advocate, health coach, and activist, and the New York Times bestselling author of 15 books on health and wellness, including the Thyroid Diet Revolution and Living Well With Hypothyroidism. On social media, Mary empowers and informs a community of more than a quarter million patients who have thyroid and hormonal health challenges.

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