Puberty. We all remember it (even if we don't want to). It is one of the biggest rights of passage we experience as humans. Scary thing is, it is happening younger and younger and this is obviously alarming to parents and medical professionals alike.
, 10 times more common in girls, is defined as the appearance of secondary sex characteristics like pubic hair or breast growth before age 8, or the onset of menarche before age 9, effects 1 in 5,000 children in the U.S. and the number is climbing.
In the 19th Century, the onset of menstruation usually happened around age 15. Now that average is 12. Before menstruation, girls will begin to show signs of development like the growth of pubic hair or breast budding and these signs are now common in girls ages 7, 8 and 9. It is so common that health care professionals have redefined what is considered 'normal.' Early puberty has been linked to lower self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, alcohol use, earlier loss of virginity, more sexual partners and increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Not to mention the evidence that these girls are at a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer later in life. Girls now are developing earlier than they did even 10 years ago. The questions here are: is this really normal? And what is causing this?
Environmental Chemicals a Likely Factor
Scientists have put forth a few theories on the subject but one that really deserves a closer look is environmental chemicals, especially the estrogen mimicking chemicals that leach out of products that contain them, contaminating everything they touch like food and drink.
A New York Times article reported that:
…animal studies show that the exposure to some environmental chemicals can cause bodies to mature early. Of particular concern are endocrine-disrupters, like “xeno-estrogens” or estrogen mimics. These compounds behave like steroid hormones and can alter puberty timing.
Hormone disrupting chemicals are everywhere. Bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial petrochemical that acts as a synthetic estrogen is found in our plastics, tin can linings, dental sealants and cash register receipts. See? Everywhere. Environmental Working Group (EWG) commissioned tests that found BPA in the umbilical cord blood of 90 percent of newborn babies tested. That wasn't all they found, they also discovered over 230 other chemicals.
BPA is only one of the chemical concerns out there. Phthalates, a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are very common endocrine disrupters found in processed food packaging and shower curtains, detergents, toys and beauty products like nail polish, hair spray, shampoo, deodorants, and fragrances.
Fluoride is another danger that's found in most municipal water supplies. Animals treated with fluoride had lower levels of circulating melatonin which was linked to an earlier puberty in the fluoride treated females.
These chemicals also increase your risk of cancer and heart disease
If a chemical can mess with your reproductive system, it would stand to reason that it might also influence other hormone sensitive growth processes. For example, research has detected the presence of paraben esters in 99 percent of breast cancer tissues sampled. They can be found in many household products like:
Another recent study has shown that a handful of metals can act as “metalloestrogens” that have the potential to add to the estrogenic burden of the human body and in doing so, increase the risk of early puberty and breast cancer. The following list of metals, added to household products, are capable of binding to cellular estrogen receptors and mimic the actions of physiological estrogens:
A long running British study has shown that if you have high levels of BPA in your urine, you may be at an increased risk of heart disease. One real concern about BPA is exposure in utero. It could lead to chromosomal errors in the developing fetus, causing spontaneous miscarriages and genetic damage. There is also evidence that these chemicals effect children and adults as well leading to decreased sperm quality, early puberty, stimulation of mammary gland development, disrupted reproductive cycles and ovarian dysfunction, obesity, cancer and heart disease.
Here is a list of ways you can avoid hormone disrupting substance:
1. As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic meats to reduce your exposure to added hormones, pesticides and fertilizers. Also avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST)
2. Eat mostly raw, fresh foods. Processed, prepackaged foods (of all kinds) are a major source of soy and chemicals such as BPA and phthalates.
3. Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA-containing liners).
4. Use glass baby bottles and BPA-free sippy cups for your little ones.
5. Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck on.
6. Only use natural cleaning products in your home to avoid phthalates.
7. Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a great safety guide to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates, parabens and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
8. Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances, many of which can also disrupt your hormone balance.
9. Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
10. When redoing your home, look for “green,” toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
11. Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric.
12. Avoid non-fermented soy, especially if you’re pregnant and in infant formula.
Vitamin D Is Also Linked to Early Puberty
Based on the suggestion that girls living closer to the equator start puberty later than those in more Northern regions, researchers at University of Michigan School of Public Health, measured vitamin D levels in 242 girls aged 5-12 finding that those who were deficient were twice as likely to start menstruation during the period of the study.
Of the vitamin D deficient girls, 57 percent started their period during the study, compared to 23 percent with adequate vitamin D.
Obesity, Stress and Exercise
Obesity is also linked to early puberty as estrogen is stored and produced in fat cells.
Girls whose parents divorced when they were between 3-8 years old were more likely to experience early puberty, suggesting that stress may be a factor. It makes sense when you think about it. A theory from evolutionary psychology suggests that when early life is hard, the body is more inclined towards early reproduction but of course these theories are very difficult to prove.
Along with avoiding environmental chemicals, obesity and stress and optimizing vitamin D, exercise seems to be the best way to prevent early puberty. So get your kids moving!