Gynecomastia (sometimes colloquially called “man boobs”) happens when an individual grows breasts without the typical balance of hormones meant to grow functional mammary glands and the associated fat surrounding increased breast gland tissue.

Typically, the hormone testosterone inhibits the development of breast tissue, while estrogen has a stimulating effect. Imbalances between these hormones can lead to gynecomastia. Being overweight can lead to increased fat storage on your chest as well as throughout your entire body.

Studies have found that between 32 to 65 percent of males have gynecomastia. Nonsurgical treatment usually focuses on targeting the root cause, such as lifestyle changes, medications, and hormone therapy.

Keep reading as we take a deeper look at the possible causes and ways you can treat gynecomastia.

Many things can contribute to the development of gynecomastia, including lifestyle factors like drinking too much alcohol or exercising little, underlying disease, aging, and side effects of some medications.

The sex hormone testosterone has an inhibitory effect on the development of breast tissue, while the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone have a stimulating effect in the presence of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1.

The following factors may lead to an imbalance of these hormones in people with penises who may not otherwise develop gynecomastia.

Aging

Testosterone naturally drops as you get older starting roughly at the age of 30. Studies of men over 65 years have found that gynecomastia usually appears due to lower testosterone levels. Other studies have found that 24 to 65 percent of men between the ages of 50 to 80 have gynecomastia.

Older people with penises are also more likely to be taking medications that may cause gynecomastia as a side effect.

Puberty

About 60 percent of young people with penises have signs of gynecomastia by age 14 due to hormonal changes during puberty.

Gynecomastia resulting from changes that happen during puberty tends to resolve without treatment within three years.

High percentage of body fat

Having an overall high body fat percentage at any weight can lead to increased fat storage around the chest. Having a higher body fat percentage is also linked to higher estrogen levels.

Fat tissue is the major tissue where testosterone is converted into estrogen by the enzyme aromatase. About 85 percent of the estrogen in the body of a person with a penis comes from the activity of this enzyme.

Health conditions

Health conditions that cause changes to testosterone and estrogen levels can potentially lead to the development of excess breast tissue. Some of these conditions include:

Drugs and medications

About 20 percent of cases of gynecomastia are caused by drugs or medications.

Some drugs have estrogen-like properties, increase estrogen production, or supply your body with substances like testosterone that can be transformed into estrogen. Other types of drugs lead to the development of gynecomastia for unknown reasons.

Use of the following is linked to gynecomastia:

The most effective treatment for you depends on the underlying cause of your gynecomastia.

The way you dress can also have an impact on how noticeable your gynecomastia is.

Clothing for gynecomastia

Here are some tips on how to make your gynecomastia less noticeable.

Avoid

  • compression shirts
  • tight-fitting tops
  • white tops

Wear

  • tops with patterns
  • layers or thicker tops
  • minimally contrasting colors between your top and pants
  • suits with pinstripes

Improve your lifestyle habits, as needed

Some lifestyle habits can contribute to increased body fat. People who are overweight can often have more fat throughout the body, including around their chest, than people who are not overweight. Increased body fat can also contribute to lower testosterone levels by increasing aromatase activity.

Some lifestyle habits you can make to improve your hormone levels include:

  • minimize alcohol consumption
  • try to avoid sources of stress in your life
  • aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night
  • perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week
  • aim to strength train all major muscle groups at least twice per week
  • eat a balanced diet with an emphasis on minimally processed foods

Eating an overall balanced diet can help you make sure your body has all the nutrients it has to maximize its testosterone production and help you lower your body fat percentage.

Nutrients that are particularly important for the production of testosterone include protein, vitamin D, and zinc. Just a few potential testosterone-boosting foods include egg yolks, oysters, and tuna.

Some foods produce chemicals called phytoestrogens that mimic estrogen in the body.

More research is needed to fully understand the effects of these chemicals in your body, but minimizing your consumption of foods that contain phytoestrogens may help improve your testosterone to estrogen ratio. Soy, legumes, and licorice root are three common sources of phytoestrogen.

It’s a myth that exercising a certain part of your body causes you to lose more fat in that area than other parts of your body.

For example, if you do pushups, you won’t lose more fat from your chest than if you burn the same number of calories doing squats.

Including more aerobic exercise in your workout program can help you lower your overall body fat percentage. The type of exercise you do isn’t as important as the length, intensity, or duration.

Some ideas include:

  • brisk walking
  • jogging
  • swimming
  • skating
  • dancing
  • rowing
  • skipping

Pushups are a great equipment-free exercise you can do to build muscle in your chest. You can increase your reps, sets, or add weight to make them more difficult over time.

Gynecomastia doesn’t typically cause any symptoms other than tenderness around the breast, but it can be a cause of mental distress. It’s a good idea to visit a medical professional if you experience discharge from your nipples, have swelling, or have a significant amount of pain.

If you think you could have a medical condition such as a tumor in your testes or hyperthyroidism, it’s also important to see a doctor.

A doctor may be able to help you find the underlying cause of your gynecomastia and help you find the best treatment.

Treatment for gynecomastia usually consists of targeting the underlying condition.

Some nonsurgical treatments a doctor may recommend include:

  • Off-label medications. Your doctor may prescribe the breast cancer drugs raloxifene or tamoxifen as off-label treatments for gynecomastia.
  • Switching medications. If a doctor suspects that a drug you’re taking may be causing your gynecomastia, they may switch your medication or lower your dose.
  • Testosterone therapy. Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) in the form of injections, skin gels, or patches can boost your testosterone levels.
  • Treating underlying health conditions. Treating an underlying health condition like hyperthyroidism or malnutrition may improve symptoms of gynecomastia.

Gynecomastia is often caused by a hormonal imbalance between testosterone and estrogen.

Many factors can contribute to the development of gynecomastia, including poor lifestyle habits, underlying medical conditions, the natural aging process, and certain medications. Treatment for gynecomastia involves targeting the underlying cause. Often, improving exercise and diet habits can help.

If you think you may have an underlying medical condition, see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment.