I'm in no rush for my kids to enter puberty - and neither are they - but the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and countless other news outlets are sharing the news that more and more children, specifically girls, are entering puberty really early - at age 7 - based on three new studies of over 1200 girls. Early puberty correlates to high probability of breast cancer, potentially stunting growth and possibly lowering self-esteem. Plus, who wants to deal with those mood swings any sooner than needed.
The University of Michigan Health System offers a wealth of information about "precocious puberty" including its signs and treatment, if desired. The studies and UM both show that the vast majority of precocious puberty cases have no medical origin meaning that the girl's endocrine system is functioning normally. And precocious puberty impacts minorities worse than white (I really dislike these words) girls -
Among 7-year-olds, about 10% of whites, 15% of Hispanics and 23% of blacks have some breast tissue. Among 8-year-olds, the numbers grew to 18% of whites, almost a third of Hispanics and half of blacks. - Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2010
18% of white girls, 33% Hispanic girls and 50% of black girls and NO ONE KNOWS WHY.
Nutrition and Obesity
There is no study proving any causality. The scientists theorize that it could be better nutrition as in the 1700s, puberty onset, on average, around 17 years of age - mostly due to malnutrition. Another theory is that obesity contributes to precocious puberty.
Fat cells produce hormones, and once a critical mass of fat tissue is reached, the hormone leptin is released to trigger puberty, according to JoAnn Manson, an endocrinologist and chief of preventive medication at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who wasn't involved in the study. - Shirley S. Wang, IBID
Other theories are that we've introduced more toxins into our environment - some of which have been tested initially to show correlation to precocious puberty. There haven't been wide-scale, scientifically reviewed long-term studies to prove or disprove this theory, but many are trying. And the FDA is reconsidering regulating BPA. Our Stolen Future, a book and advocacy group, has been advocating the environmental toxins for some time and has a list of the studies to date.
The problem with food
Obesity, nutrition and environmental factors all come together in the food supply. It's daunting to consider that you are what your food eats. It's hard enough to be what YOU eat. Now I need to know what my food is fed because it impacts what we're putting in our body. And encourage (and model) a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise because there is no question that obesity is linked to precocious puberty as well as a host of other issues. I've been on an 18 month journey questioning a lot of my assumptions about what's good for me.
Soy - in particular unfermented soy - mimics estrogen. Estrogen is the key ingredient for puberty and foods can impact it. And soy is in EVERYTHING. So much so that my family has minimized eating soy (even getting rid of soy sauce in favor of the almost identical tasting amino acid sauce) because I want to limit the amount in our system. Soy is fed to chickens, cows and used in many processed foods (check labels for fun and see how much soybean oil you find - its scary). I'm not saying soy is bad. I'm saying too much, of anything, is bad and we have so much soy in our diet that we don't need to add any.
My approach, started a year ago when my son was only 7, was to eliminate soy products, stop using soybean oil and pay attention to what our food is fed. Recently, I've extended to organic kosher chicken (would prefer pastured, but it's hard to find) and grass fed beef.
I hope I can keep my kids safe from precocious puberty. There are treatments if your daughter is showing signs of puberty and she's 7-8-9 years old. As part of a breast cancer family, I know that I would act to intervene because my family doesn't need more risk for breast cancer. Hopefully studies that prove correlation and causality will be published in the near future and lead to changes that can reverse this trend.