Updated: Jan 26
I believe that the practice of functional medicine (especially when paired with coaching) is gradually transforming the standard of effective healthcare. Unlike conventional medicine, the functional approach wisely includes ALL elements of a person’s life in assessing and improving wellness. Not just a person’s lab work or family history of disease but also their diet, relationships, stress, career fulfillment, chemical exposure/toxicity, beliefs/fears, and spiritual health. A truly thorough approach also needs to include our choice of clothing.
We have long known that overly tight clothing can promote blockage and dysfunction in the body. Overly tight underwear increases the likelihood of male infertility or female yeast infections (in both cases, especially if the underwear material is synthetic). Overly tight waistlines and belts can promote acid reflux and other indigestion. Heck, most of us have probably gotten a headache at least once from an overly tight baseball cap.
A recent clinical study is expanding our understanding of the possible dangers of tight bras. It also highlights the often understated (or even neglected) yet powerful role of the body’s lymphatic system. A key part of our immune system, lymph circulates in its own vessels throughout the body, delivering lymphocytes (key warriors in mounting a strong immune response) in response to infection and also removing waste products from the body. Lymph nodes are important glands through which lymph concentrates and traps debris, waste, and pathogens. They are found throughout the body but are particularly concentrated in the armpits and the groin area.
Enter a bra. A tight bra. Especially one with a wider band made out of a stiff material. It’s not a stretch (sorry, I couldn’t resist) to see how a tight bra can over time directly impair the function of lymph and its ability to flow freely into and out of the lymph nodes concentrated under our arms. Nearly 90% of lymph flow from the breasts goes through those nodes. A tight bra could also decrease circulation all around the breast area, potentially reducing oxygenation of tissue, impairing detoxification, and increasing oxidative stress.
This is not the first time bras have been investigated as a potential cause of breast cancer. Past studies evaluating the impact of bra-wearing hours of the day have shown mixed results as to whether there is a higher risk of breast cancer from longer, daily bra use in post-menopausal women. Premenopausal women who do not wear bras have been definitively shown to have half the risk of breast cancer compared with bra users (possibly also because they are more likely to be thinner and likely to have smaller breasts too?). This is the first study I am aware of, however, which has attempted to evaluate the impact of the tightness (or “stretchiness”) of the bra being worn. A logical factor to evaluate!
This particular study found a strong correlation between breast cancer incidence and (1) those who smoked (no surprise), (2) those who used hormone replacement therapy (again, we’ve known this for some time), and (3) those who wore the tightest bras for the longest amount of time (that is, the product of the bra tightness multiplied by the number of hours worn). For the latter factor, the risk of breast cancer was more than 2X higher!
Note that this was only a correlation study. And one that evaluates a general habit that is, of course, not going to be 100% consistent as a daily lifestyle choice. It does not prove causality. However, I think the findings can sound an important wake-up call in women’s clothing choices. Minimizing the numbers of hours during which breast tissue is highly constricted in a bra makes good sense. I also believe it’s prudent to choose a bra made of a stretchy fabric which fits, but lightly and loosely.
Overall, this study is a good reminder that our immune and detoxification systems require free and easy circulation…freedom of movement. In general, tight clothing anywhere on the body is likely impairing optimal function. Dress on purpose!