Even though I love them and know how to play with boobs, sometimes my breasts seem to have a mind of their own. Ever since I can remember, I’ve experienced strange, random bouts of sadness, anxiety, and shame when touching them. To be clear, I don’t feel sad about touching them; I touch them and then feel sad, without moral provocation.
Turns out, there’s a name for it: sad nipple syndrome. Throngs of women have taken to TikTok (or NipTok, perhaps?) and Reddit within the past few years to sing the blues about their boobs and how grazing their nipples will occasionally evoke feelings of deep despair.
Excuse me, but… what the hell is going on? Why exactly does this happen? And does this mean my nipples are… sad?
What is sad nipple syndrome?
‘Sad nipple syndrome’ is a phenomenon that occurs when someone (primarily people who were assigned female at birth, more on that in a bit) experiences a wave of intense negative emotions after touching their nipples. Some people, including software engineer and lifestyle influencer Thaovy Van, describe feeling an uncontrollable sense of sadness. Some report feeling guilty or ashamed, while others express feelings of loneliness, homesickness, or nostalgia. As for myself, it kind of feels like a mix of deep dread, guilt, and anxiety á la the common nightmare of being naked in public, or getting called to the principal’s office in grade school.
It seems that not all women experience sad nipple syndrome the same way. For some, the feeling comes about randomly and suddenly and is brought on by nonsexual nipple contact. For others, nearly all forms of nipple stimulation spark feelings of unease.
Why does sad nipple syndrome happen?
To put it simply: We don’t know.
There’s yet to be any medical research conducted about how and why sad nipple syndrome occurs. Sad nipple syndrome as an idea is still incredibly new; the earliest online mentioning of it are open-ended discussion threads that date as far back as 2014. Without proper research, medical professionals, then, can only speculate as to why this phenomenon occurs.
The connection to dysphoric milk ejection reflex (D-MER)
While the medical community has yet to explore the whys and hows of sad nipple syndrome, board-certified OB/GYN and founder of HPD Rx Monte R. Swarup, MD, says we can look to other diagnoses for clues. “The closest condition to look at is D-MER, or Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, which is a medical condition which affects women when breastfeeding,” says Swarup.
Breastfeeding mothers with D-MER, Swarup says, report the similar feelings of sadness that are shared amongst people with sad nipple syndrome. For new moms, this steep dip in emotion occurs right before releasing milk from her breast. An abrupt drop in the happy hormone dopamine happens when milk release is triggered, resulting in a short dopamine deficit for the mom. This feeling of dysphoria, reports show, typically last for only a few minutes, and can range in severity from “wistfulness” to “self-loathing.”
Okay, but… what if I’ve never breastfed?
While a diagnosis of D-MER can help explain a new mother’s dysphoria while breastfeeding, it fails to explain the nipple dysphoria felt by those of us who have never lactated. Without the physiological trigger of milk release, as stated above, how, then, are non-mothers experiencing comparable levels of emotional discomfort?
Outside of dysphoria caused from milk release, Swarup says that “there is a theory that very sensitive nipples have endorphins that release when touched, which could be causing the dysphoria.”
This theory poses that what *actually* causes the dysphoria is a drop in feel-good chemicals, regardless of the cause. Nipple stimulation has been proven to result in oxytocin secretion, which would explain the intense wave of emotion us sad nipple sufferers experience on contact, as the love hormone’s been shown to also increase survival emotions like fear and anxiety. Still, as Swarup noted, it’s just a theory.
Is there a cure for sad nipple syndrome?
At present, there is no official treatment protocol for sad nipple syndrome, since we still don’t know very much about it. Without understanding exactly why and how it occurs, medical experts can’t properly prescribe one cure for all patients.
According to Dr. Swarup, more scientific evidence needs to be collected to determine if sad nipple syndrome is hormonal, psychological, physiological, or potentially, a mix of all three.
If you have especially sensitive nipples, wearing an extra layer of padding in your bra can help create a barrier between your nipples and the material of your shirt. If you experience anxiety, depression, or loneliness, consider talking it out with a licensed professional; meditative breathwork, exercise, and spending quality time with people you love may help lighten the emotional load, too.
There’s still a lot to be learned about sad nipple syndrome, and until an official diagnosis comes, I’m taking some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who has nipples that get a little sad. I hope you do, too.
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