For years scientists have disagreed whether early puberty was really an emerging phenomenon. Now there’s no doubt. Girls are getting their periods earlier. Many about a year earlier, according to a 2007 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health. But a study published in Pediatrics in 2011 found that in the United States, 15% of American girls begin puberty by age 7. Their breasts are starting to grow at a younger age, too. Black and Latinas girls are the most affected, but it is happening in all populations.
“Some girls get their period as young as 8,” begins a section for mothers on the Kotex U Brand website. Kotex initially spent over $23 million in research and development to target their new young consumer group.
Some doctors are calling this the “new normal,” according to Science News. But there is nothing normal about it and many physicians and scientists are quite alarmed. And even if your daughter isn’t showing signs of early puberty, she may still be exposed to the factors that cause it – so please read on…
It’s not just that having your period in second grade, or your breasts develop in kindergarten really sucks for all of the obvious social and emotional reasons. It’s also a sign that something is seriously wrong in our daughters’ endocrine (hormonal) systems. They are getting “hormonally hot-housed.” Endocrine disruption can increase our daughters’ risk of developing hormonally related cancers later in life. It also increases a girl’s risk of sexual harassment and abuse, early sexual involvement, and risk-taking behaviors. She might be seen as, and potentially act, more sexually mature than she actually is psychologically and emotionally.
Our daughters (and our sons, too) are unwittingly the canaries in our social and ecologic coal mine.
There is little mystery underlying this increased rate of early puberty. Medical problems that cause it such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, disorders of the gonads (ovaries in girls, testes in boys) or adrenal glands, McCune-Albright syndrome, or hormone-secreting tumors are exceptionally rare.
The 3 biggest contributors to early puberty are:
1. Obesity: About 20% or more of US kids are now obese. This rate has tripled in the past 30 years, and this trend corresponds to earlier puberty.
2. Exposure to environmental toxins that act as estrogen in the body: Many substances used in flame retardant fabrics, cosmetics, plastics, pesticides, detergents and other common household and industrial products can mimic the effect of estrogen in our bodies. The CDC has linked a solvent used in some mothballs and solid blocks of toilet bowl deodorizers and air fresheners to earlier menstruation – they also found it in the bodies of nearly all the people tested in the U.S.! It doesn’t take much exposure to cause health effects, which may include increased risk of early puberty, diabetes, and cancer. These environmental chemicals accumulate over time and because they accumulate and are stored in fat cells, may be even more of a problem for overweight girls.
3. Stress: Stress can wreak havoc on the endocrine system. And most of us suffer from stress starting at any earlier age than ever. Inadequate sleep, school pressures, stress at home, peer pressure and bullying are just a few of the major stressors to which our girls are regularly exposed. Stress can also make us fatter; more fat means more estrogen and this can lead to earlier puberty.
While government, food companies, and industry also need to tackle these issues on a global scale, the factors leading to early puberty and endocrine disruption in our daughters can be prevented or mitigated through the diet and lifestyle choices we make and teach them.
Here are steps you can take:
- Cut out the soda and juice completely! (Water is the best beverage)
- Cut portion sizes in half
- Do your best to eliminate bread, pasta, potatoes and white rice from the diet: emphasize good quality proteins and vegetables as the mainstay of their diets
- Cut the amount of TV watching in half (and adding exercise will make this even better!)
- Make sure you are doing all of these things yourself!
Prevent Exposure to “Environmental Estrogens”
- Avoid flame retardant products (see my blog)
- Encourage your girls to avoid cosmetics, and if they are going to use them, go natural. It’s more expensive in the short run, but the health price tag is much lower over time!
- Get your daughter a glass water bottle and teach her not to drink out of plastic bottles
- Avoid plastic wrapped foods and plastic food containers for reheating and storing hot foods as much as possible.
- Eat organic whenever possible, especially dairy products, which accumulate environmental contaminants, and foods in the “dirty dozen”.
Stress-Proof Your Daughter
- Teach your daughter to get help from a teacher and to come to you if there are peer stressors at school or bullying
- Encourage your daughter to join a school or after school sport, dance class, or other physical activity which is enjoyable for her
- Reduce exposure to TV violence
- Teach simple meditation or relaxation skills to be done before bedtime, exams, or in a stressful situation. Simply breathing in and saying, “I am” on the inhale, and “At peace” on the exhale 4 times in a row, or “counting to 10” with deep breathing can make a difference!
Teach Your Daughters Well
If your daughter has a medical condition or other reasons that she’s already gone through puberty, it’s absolutely important to help her feel comfortable in her body and not add to her stigma. But for all of our daughters’ sakes, obese should not be the new norm, nor should early puberty. We can teach our daughters the healthiest possible habits from their earliest years and give them a lifetime of health.
Do you have questions, concerns? Do you have ideas on supporting our daughters’ hormonal health? Please share in the comments below.
Bell, L. Early Arrival: Premature puberty among girls poses scientific puzzle. Science News. December 1, 2012; Vol.182 #11.
Konkel L. Early puberty? Girls exposed to household chemical menstruate earlier, CDC study finds. August 2012.
Newman, AA. A Younger Group for Feminine Products. New York Times Advertising Section. April 14, 2011.