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Gynecomastia: What It Is, What Causes It, And How to Prevent It

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Is your chest looking fuller even though you have both an X and Y chromosome? This condition, called gynecomastia (man boobs), can be understandably embarrassing, and, unfortunately, isn’t always easy to get rid of naturally.

In most cases, gynecomastia occurs due to an imbalance in your hormones—your estrogen is too high, and your testosterone is too low. The result is the growth of male breast tissue, but there are steps you can take to prevent this imbalance from occurring.

Continue reading to learn more about what causes gynecomastia and how to prevent it; that way, instead of eventually wondering if your gynecomastia will go away, you can keep it from occurring in the first place.

What Is Gynecomastia?

Gynecomastia is an increase in the amount of breast tissue in boys or men. It can affect one or both breasts and may sometimes cause an uneven increase.

While gynecomastia is not normally a serious problem—it doesn’t typically pose a threat to your health—it can significantly affect a man’s self-esteem and cause negative repercussions on their mental health.

Beyond the embarrassment, gynecomastia can also cause physical discomfort in the form of pain in the breasts. As a side effect of hormonal imbalance, gynecomastia may also be accompanied by other, more damaging, side effects of hormonal imbalance.

Wondering if you have gynecomastia? The symptoms of gynecomastia can include:

  • Swollen breast tissue
  • Pain, especially in teenagers
  • Tender breasts
  • Nipples that are sensitive when rubbing against clothes

What Causes Gynecomastia?

Gynecomastia most often occurs due to an imbalance in the hormones of estrogen and testosterone. It is most common in newborns, boys going through puberty, and older men due to the natural hormonal changes of these time periods. However, gynecomastia doesn’t always occur because of the body’s natural imbalance.

First, it’s important to understand the hormones at play here. The male body naturally produces more of the sex hormone testosterone, which produces the traditionally male characteristics of a deeper voice, facial hair, etc. Still, the male body also uses estrogen, the female sex hormone, just in a much smaller amount.

If these ratios are thrown off, gynecomastia may occur.

Natural Hormonal Changes

More than half of male babies are born with enlarged breasts because of the effects of estrogen during pregnancy, and gynecomastia due to puberty-related hormonal changes is also common—in both these cases, gynecomastia typically goes away without treatment, within 2-3 weeks in newborns and six months to 2 years in adolescents.

However, older men between the ages of 50 and 80 can also experience gynecomastia due to natural hormonal changes, but it does not go away on its own in the same way that it does in younger boys.

Medicines

Some medicines can cause gynecomastia, including:

  • Anti-androgens
  • Antiretroviral medicine, due to estrogen-like properties
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Tricyclic antidepressant
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • ADHD medicines containing amphetamines
  • Opioids used to treat chronic pain
  • Chemotherapy
  • Heart medicines
  • Ulcer medicines
  • Stomach-emptying medicines

Drugs and Alcohol

Using drugs such as marijuana, heroin, methadone, and amphetamines and drinking alcohol may cause male breast tissue to enlarge.

Certain Health Conditions

Health conditions that affect the balance of hormones can cause gynecomastia, such as:

  • Hypogonadism
  • Aging
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Obesity
  • Tumors
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure

Some of these health conditions cause a decline in testosterone, while others cause estrogen levels to rise.

Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that interact with the body like estrogen, raising estrogen levels and causing estrogenic effects, such as breast tissue growth.

While many plant-based foods have phytoestrogens, some have higher phytoestrogen concentrations than others. For instance, flax seeds are rich in lignans, which are a type of phytoestrogen found in fibre-packed foods. Consuming a high amount of flax seeds and flaxseed products may lead to a higher estrogenic effect.

Other foods high in phytoestrogens include:

  • Flaxseeds
  • Carrots
  • Pomegranates
  • Yams
  • Lentils
  • Sprouts
  • Soy products
  • Barley

The types of phytoestrogens in each product can vary, as can the amount of phytoestrogens. So, some people may be more sensitive to the phytoestrogens from one food than another.

In addition to food, phytoestrogens can also be absorbed through the skin when applied in a topical product, such as a lotion, cream, or other body product. In particular, lavender and tea tree oil have been linked to male gynecomastia in young men. In these individuals, the condition went away after cessation of these products, but in older men, discontinuing use may not be enough to reverse breast tissue growth.

How to Get Rid of Gynecomastia

For those wondering if gynecomastia will go away on their own, there’s an unfortunate answer to that question—gynecomastia is almost always a permanent condition that can only be removed with the help of a plastic surgeon. Furthermore, you should work with a plastic surgeon who is skilled in removing male breast tissue; working with a plastic surgeon not trained in this specific condition, even if they may be skilled in other areas of plastic surgery, can provide less than preferred results.

When it comes to removing gynecomastia, you want to do the research and ensure you’re working with an expert; your body image is at stake.

As a first step, though, you can always try removing any products or consumables that may be producing an estrogenic or anti-androgenic effect. In some cases, this is enough to reverse the gynecomastia, although that is more common in younger boys.

How to Prevent Gynecomastia

For most men, gynecomastia is not a desired condition. It can eat away at your self-confidence due to embarrassment, which can then cause a decline in your mental health and keep you from truly living your life.

If you’re worried about gynecomastia or generally want to maintain proper hormonal balance in your body, there are steps you can take:

Avoid Anti-Androgen Products and Consumables

An anti-androgenic product or consumable keeps androgens (male sex hormones) from binding to androgen receptors. If androgens cannot bind to their receptors, your male sex hormones cannot produce their effects on your body, which can cause symptoms of low testosterone even if your testosterone is not technically low.  

Some phytoestrogens can act as anti-androgens, with flax seeds in particular shown to reduce androgen levels in men. The topical use of lavender and tea tree oil, as well, has anti-androgenic effects alongside their estrogenic properties, as reported by the Endocrine Society. Using these products or consuming phytoestrogens can then cause a decline in testosterone levels, leading to gynecomastia.

To avoid these effects, it’s recommended that these products and consumables be avoided.

Filter Your Drinking Water

Your water may taste normal, but there’s likely more hiding between the molecules of H­2O than you expect.

A study conducted by the US Geological Survey discovered that nearly half of the tap water in the United States is contaminated by “forever chemicals,” and the number might be even higher since the researchers couldn’t test for all per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS)—they tested for less than 0.2%.

PFAS are known hormone disruptors that have been linked to health concerns that include thyroid disease, liver damage, and hormone suppression. Even more, in June 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received new research that suggests PFAS are much more dangerous than previously believed, even when they are consumed in amounts thousands of times lower than the previous safety threshold.

Other contaminants disrupting your hormones can be found in drinking water, as well, such as trace pharmaceuticals, including female hormones that are excreted when going to the bathroom but not properly filtered before returning as drinking water.  

By filtering your water using a reverse osmosis system, you can remove these compounds left in drinking water, reducing your exposure to these endocrine disruptors.

Avoid Plastic Containers

Some plastics contain bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that acts as a form of estrogen. It is commonly used during the production process of shatterproof plastic and can enter your food or water if you use plastic containers. While it remains unknown how much can enter your food and water through this modality, research suggests that even a low dose can significantly affect your body.

Another study on the effect of microplastics and nanoplastics, which result from plastic containers breaking down over time, found that they disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-testicular axis and the hormones produced there, such as testosterone.

When testosterone production is lowered and estrogen raised, gynecomastia can result. To reduce this exposure, it’s recommended to cut out the use of plastic where you can, such as using glass or stainless steel food storage containers or water bottles. If you need to use plastic, don’t microwave it—this can cause microplastics to break off.

Protect Your Hormones, Prevent Gynecomastia

Gynecomastia, also known as male breasts, is a body image concern that can affect men of all ages. While some natural hormone changes can cause gynecomastia, in other cases, it can occur due to your consumption or use of products that have estrogenic or anti-androgenic effects, throwing your hormonal balance into chaos. The result can be the appearance of female characteristics, such as enlarged breasts, on a male’s body.

There are ways to prevent gynecomastia, though, such as avoiding phytoestrogens and filtering your drinking water. If gynecomastia already exists, plastic surgery is often the only way to get rid of it, so prevention is crucial for avoiding surgery.

For a pre-vetted list of products that do not contain chemicals or compounds that increase estrogen or lower testosterone, check out What I Buy.

References

Zierau, O., Morrissey, C., Watson, R. W., Schwab, P., Kolba, S., Metz, P., & Vollmer, G. (2003). Anti-androgenic activity of the phytoestrogens naringenin, 6-(1,1-dimethylallyl)naringenin and 8-prenylnaringenin. Planta medica, 69(9), 856–858. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2003-43222

Morton, M. S., Chan, P. S., Cheng, C., Blacklock, N., Matos-Ferreira, A., Abranches-Monteiro, L., Correia, R., Lloyd, S., & Griffiths, K. (1997). Lignans and isoflavonoids in plasma and prostatic fluid in men: samples from Portugal, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom. The Prostate, 32(2), 122–128. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1097-0045(19970701)32:2<122::aid-pros7>3.0.co;2-o

Endocrine Society. (2018, March 19). Chemicals in lavender and tea tree oil appear to be hormone disruptors. Endocrine.org; Endocrine Society. https://www.endocrine.org/news-and-advocacy/news-room/2018/chemicals-in-lavender-and-tea-tree-oil-appear-to-be-hormone-disruptors

vom Saal, F. S., & Hughes, C. (2005). An extensive new literature concerning low-dose effects of bisphenol A shows the need for a new risk assessment. Environmental health perspectives, 113(8), 926–933. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.7713

Smalling, K. L., Romanok, K. M., Bradley, P. M., Morriss, M. C., Gray, J. L., Kanagy, L. K., Gordon, S. E., Williams, B. M., Breitmeyer, S. E., Jones, D. K., DeCicco, L. A., Eagles-Smith, C. A., & Wagner, T. (2023). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in United States tapwater: Comparison of underserved private-well and public-supply exposures and associated health implications. Environment International, 178, 108033–108033. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2023.108033

Our Current Understanding of the Human Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS | US EPA. (2021). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas

Sze Yee Wee, Ahmad Zaharin Aris, Fatimah Md. Yusoff, & Sarva Mangala Praveena. (2020). Occurrence of multiclass endocrine disrupting compounds in a drinking water supply system and associated risks. Scientific Reports, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-74061-5

Rubin B. S. (2011). Bisphenol A: an endocrine disruptor with widespread exposure and multiple effects. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology, 127(1-2), 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsbmb.2011.05.002

vom Saal, F. S., & Hughes, C. (2005). An extensive new literature concerning low-dose effects of bisphenol A shows the need for a new risk assessment. Environmental health perspectives, 113(8), 926–933. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.7713

Author

  • Jessica Guht

    Jessica is a medical writer with an unquenched thirst to discover something new. She believes that medical content should be universally accessible and strives to write content that everyone, no matter their background, can understand. Credentials: - Masters of Engineering (ME) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University - Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University

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author avatar
Jessica Guht
Jessica is a medical writer with an unquenched thirst to discover something new. She believes that medical content should be universally accessible and strives to write content that everyone, no matter their background, can understand. Credentials: - Masters of Engineering (ME) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University - Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University

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