For years I’ve noticed the onset of puberty happening earlier and earlier. Parents have asked me why, and I’ve shared what I knew, always adding that further research needed to be done. The New Puberty, by Louise Greenspan, MD, and Julianna Deardorff, Ph.D., offers exactly that– a wealth of well-researched information for parents to help them understand what this earlier-onset puberty is and how to weather it.
These are the three culprits Greenspan and Deardorff address in the book:
- Excess fat (overweight or obese)
- Exposure to chemicals that disrupt healthy human biology, especially the hormonal system
- Social and psychological stressors (e.g. early childhood trauma, absent father, stressors in the home)
So in reality, it’s not one issue but a combination of these three that are affecting when puberty begins.
Let’s look at one instance of how these factors affect the hormones related to the onset of puberty. Estrogen lies at the heart of female biology and has a significant effect on puberty, maturation and periods. Diet, environment and stress all have a direct effect on the production of estrogen. Fat cells secrete estrogen in the body, so when there’s a higher accumulation of body fat, there is more estrogen secreted. Greenspan and Deardorff believe that higher estrogen levels are influencing breast development. Anecdotally, I have had mothers come up to me during class and share that their eight -year old daughters have breast buds, which concerns them.
The three culprits have also contributed to changes in the American diet. Before the introduction of fast foods, preservatives and chemicals, our diets included mostly whole foods. Many of the reasons for childhood obesity have to do with the current state of our diet in the United States. The proliferation of fast foods, sugary calories, coffee drinks and sodas has contributed to the overall increase in obesity, especially in young girls, in our country. Since estrogen is found in fat cells, young girls who are obese tend to enter puberty younger due to the release of estrogen at a younger age.
Greenspan and Deardorff’s three culprits are also tied into the environment. Post WW II, Bayer Chemical developed a myriad of chemicals intended to kill bugs and germs. The goal was reached (DDT), but the effects on humans are just now coming to full light, including their effects on the hormonal system. (For more information on the chemical effects on the environment, the watchdog agency EWG is the best resource.)
Current research addresses the fact that certain chemicals our bodies come in contact with are capable of locking onto estrogen receptors in the body, thereby producing an estrogen-mimicking affect. This means that if girls at a young age are introduced to environmental chemicals in shampoo, soap, sunscreen, cleaning products, etc., this might be enough to kick-start puberty at a younger age. This has been a concern of mine for quite some time, and I have been addressing it with parents in our Puber-Tea and Rites of Passage classes in order to invite them to be more cautious.
While food can be improved and being more proactive about our environment is possible, stressors in our lives can be a challenge to mitigate, given the current state of our lives. Our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol, which creates a “fight or flight” effect to keep us safe from the dangers that surround us. Once the danger is over, we no longer need cortisol so it recedes, preparing us for the next dangerous situation.
You would think that we’ve evolved since the caveman times and the need for cortisol would have lessened. Not! The current stressors in families’ lives can have a direct effect on how an estrogen-based body prepares for puberty as the fight-or-flight reflex is triggered by a broader variety of modern stressors, resulting in an effect on the hormonal system.
For example, children who have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse, stressful family situation(s) or even the absence of the biological father, can experience a corresponding effect on when puberty begins. Interestingly enough, in Greenspan and Deardorff’s research, the mother’s absence didn’t seem to have the same impact as a missing father. Somehow, the stressors in a child’s life create a cascading effect on the hormonal system, which then initiates the release of estrogen triggering the start of puberty.
Look out for Part 2 in this series, Potential Repercussions, and if you’re in Orange County and would like to hear me address the New Puberty live, I’ll be talking at the Tustin Library on Tuesday, February 28. Please CLICK HERE to download a flier with all the details.