Both males and females have breasts. However, whilst they are not (strictly speaking) involved in reproduction, the female breasts are a highly visible, tangible, beautiful and distinctively functional feature of the female body. The curve of the female breast, its sensitivity to touch and involvement in acts of intimacy lend it an air of the “forbidden fruit”, but their primary role is the nourishment of infants.
Tabooed, worshipped and often exploited, Meema Spadola refers to a woman’s breasts as “a woman’s most public and private parts.”
Where do breasts come from?
More physiologically speaking, “the breast” is the upper ventral (frontal) region of the torso of a primate (including humans of course). Both men and women develop breasts from the same embryological tissues. However, at puberty, female sex hormones, mainly oestrogen, promote breast development which does not occur in men. As a result, women’s breasts become far more prominent and functional than those of men. In a female the breast’s primary function is to produce milk for infant nourishment post pregnancy.
The Breast – Anatomically Speaking
Although the female breast is primarily made up of fat and connective tissue,
Separated from the rib cage by a thin layer of muscle, the female breasts are complex structures largely made up of modified sweat glands, known as mammary glands, fatty and connective tissues.
The Areola And Nipple
The areola is the dark coloured area around the nipple. A woman’s areolae may change colour over time in response to hormonal changes caused by menstruation, certain medications and aging. Most women find that the areolae darken and enlarge substantially during pregnancy, though some return to the original colour may occur after the baby is born.
The nipple varies in appearance from woman to woman, from flat to inverted to outward-projecting. Each nipple is supplied with numerous nerve endings, which makes them particularly sensitive to touch.
Lobules and Ducts
Each breast has 12 to 25 lobules or milk glands that branch out from the nipple. Each lobule contains milk-secreting tissues housed in tiny, hollow sacs called alveoli. The lobules are linked by a network of thin tubes called lactiferous ducts.
During lactation (when the breasts are producing milk), the lactiferous ducts carry milk from the alveoli toward the dark area of skin in the centre of the breast called the areola. From the areola, the ducts join together into larger ducts that drain into openings in the nipple.
The Bits In Between
Spaces around the lobules and ducts are filled with fatty tissue, ligaments and connective tissue, collectively called the stromata. Whilst the actual milk-producing structures are nearly the same in all women, the amount of fatty tissue can vary significantly. It is largely the volume of this fatty tissue in the breasts determines their size. Female breast tissue is sensitive to cyclical changes in hormone levels, so breast size can also vary a little throughout the different stages of the menstrual cycle.
Younger women usually have denser breasts with more glandular and less fatty breast tissue. Pregnancy and nursing can cause significant changes in breast size and shape. As a woman ages, the fatty tissue in the breasts may become more prominent than the glandular tissue, and the breasts may feel softer. The density of the functional glandular tissues in the breasts gradually atrophy (shrink) after menopause (the end of menstruation).
Arteries, Capillaries and Nerves
Mixed in amongst all the stromata is a network of arteries and capillaries needed to keep oxygen and nutrients flowing to the breast tissue. Both women and men have a large concentration of blood vessels and nerves in their nipples creating a unique level of sensitivity. This is why the nipples of both males and females can become erect in response to touch, cold and to sexual stimuli.
Lymph Nodes and Lymph Ducts
Other important structures include the lymphatic system. A network of blood vessels, lymph nodes and lymph ducts connected throughout the body by tiny tubes called lymph vessels. The breasts are rich in lymph tissue that helps remove waste products and transport infection fighting immune cells. Lymph nodes are found under the armpit, above the collarbone, behind the breastbone and in other parts of the body. These lymph nodes trap harmful substances that may be in the lymphatic system and safely drain them from the body.
The lymph glands (and the immune system components they transport) are important in breast and whole body health because cancer cells can also be transported to lymph nodes and other parts of the body through the lymphatic system.
Written by Jacqui Simcock
Naturopath and Medical herbalist