Most of us are familiar with the physical signs of puberty, like hair growing in different places, breast development and menstruation in girls and voice changes in boys.
What is Puberty?
Puberty actually begins when the brain, in an area known as the hypothalamus, begins releasing gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH. The hormone then travels to the pituitary gland. This small gland below the brain actually produces hormones that control other glands in the body. The pituitary gland then releases two other puberty hormones, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
All these hormones traveling around the body brings about puberty, and what happens next depends on gender. In boys, hormones travel to the testes, alerting the body that it’s time to begin producing sperm and testosterone. In girls, the hormones travel to the ovaries and signal that it’s time to start maturing and producing eggs.
Onset Of Early Puberty
Precocious puberty is defined as the onset of puberty before age 7 or 8 in girls or age 9 in boys. In 1860, the average age of the onset of puberty in girls was 16.6 years. During the 1920s, it was 14.6; in 1950, 13.1; 1980, 12.5; and in 2010, it had dropped to 10.5 and its decreasing every year.
Today, most doctors accept that the age of onset of puberty is dropping steadily. For a parent, discovering that your child is entering puberty early can be alarming.
Causes of Early Puberty
What factors lie behind this trend? Why are our children reaching biological adulthood at earlier and earlier ages? Answers to these questions are still debated although some of the reasons widely believed are
- The diet that is increasingly high in sugar and fat.
- Increasing obesity is often quoted
- Declining physical activity
- Chemicals in the environment that act on hormones
- Hormones in milk and meats, particularly the artificial bovine growth hormone, rBGH.
- Hormonally active components, which have been linked to earlier pubertal development found in a wide array of consumer products, including hair tonics, pesticides, packaging (linings of food and beverage cans) and building materials.
Loss of innocent childhood
In addition to the increased risk for breast cancer as a result of earlier puberty onset, and the other effects of chemical contaminants on human development, Steingraber, ecologist, and author of ‘The Falling Age of Puberty’ states that there are also many social reasons.
Girls who enter puberty earlier report more anxiety, negative self-images, and suicide attempts; they are also more likely to abuse drugs, take up cigarette smoking and drink alcohol than their counterparts. Girls who have early pubertal development are also more likely to be on the receiving end of physical and sexual violence and more likely to have a teenage pregnancy.
Exposure to chemicals in our environment has led to a plethora of health concerns, such as shortened gestational periods in fetal development, low birth weight babies, higher rates of obesity and poor insulin regulation in the body, which are all risk factors for early puberty.
Steingraber’s report effectively concludes that the trigger for early puberty development in girls—which is real and should be a cause for concern—is not a simple single cause with effect, but an intermingling web of causal factors that initiate multiple changes and set the stage for other responses.
What Can you do to reduce the risk of precocious puberty?
There are also a variety of ways you can minimize your child — and your own! — exposure to endocrine disruptors.
- Focus on eating whole, fresh foods, as processed foods and meats are pumped with chemicals.
- If you’re thinking of having a child or are currently pregnant, consider breastfeeding if you can.Though investigators aren’t quite sure why it seems that girls who were mostly fed with breast milk show a later onset of puberty.
- When possible, choose organic produce to reduce ingestion of chemicals.
- Avoid storing food or using containers with BPA in them; glass is your friend.
- Use a glass to reheat food. Never reheat in plastic containers, BPA-free or not, as chemicals can still be released.
- Minimize the use of canned foods, since BPA can seep through them. Opt for glass instead.
- Limit exposure to phthalates by avoiding purchasing products with recycling #3 or “PVC” on them.
- Don’t forget to check the ingredients list of your beauty products, too! Choose all-natural products where possible, including female hygiene products.
- Can’t go totally all-natural? Try avoiding artificial fragrances instead and opt for unscented. Phthalates are often to use to give products like detergents, fabric softeners and beauty product their smell.
- Use fabric shower curtains.