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.
“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.
While many doctors chalk this up to a “new normal,” there's nothing normal about it – and in fact, physicians should be quite alarmed. And as parents, we need to also be aware – because even if your daughter isn’t showing signs of early puberty, she may still be exposed to the factors that cause it and that can affect her hormones in other ways.
Hormonal Hot Housing
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 harming 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. While this is happening in all populations, Latina and Black girls are at highest risk of developing premature puberty, and are at higher risks of all the related complications. So this is not just an ecologic issue, though that’s significant; it’s an economic and racial justice issue as well.
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.
Causes of Early Puberty
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to Prevent Early Puberty
Prevent Exposure to “Environmental Estrogens”
- Avoid flame retardant products (see my blog)
- Encourage your pre-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! See the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep website for information on safe cosmetic options.
- Get your daughter a glass water bottle – Life Factory makes them in bright colors, a variety of sizes, with plain and even “sippy” and “straw” tops, and they are dishwasher safe and virtually indestructible. All my daughters have one. Encourage her to avoid drinking out of plastic bottles whenever possible.
- Avoid plastic wrapped foods and plastic food containers for reheating and storing hot foods as much as possible.
- Eat organic whenever possible, especially dairy and meat products, which accumulate environmental contaminants and are more likely to accumulate hormones and antibiotics used in the production process. See the Environmental Working Group's “dirty dozen” for the “must avoid” if not organic list.
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!
- 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 – our kids model what they see more than what we say!
Reclaim your power. Feel at home in your body. And be the force of nature you really are!
Teach Your Daughter About Her Body and Her Health
We've gotta' take the stigma out of puberty so we can talk openly with our daughters and help them feel comfortable in their bodies no matter what.
If your daughter has a medical condition or other reasons that she’s already gone through puberty, it’s super important to talk with her about what's going on, and help her feel comfortable.
Obese should also not be the new norm. Neither should early puberty. If we're so worried about not making them self-counscious about their weight to the point that we don't teach them how to eat well, we're doing them a major disservice. There's a difference between healthy food consciousness and awareness about best food choices, healthy serving sizes, and being fit, and being food and body neurotic.
We can teach our daughters the healthiest possible habits from their earliest years -especially by modeling these ourselves — without giving them food phobias and eating disorders! This means walking our talk.
Let's start talking with our daughters today, and taking care of ourselves in ways that model self love, self care, and best health — so that they can emerge into womanhood confident and without preventable risks of long term emotional and health problems.