By Suzy McCleary
My little girl is turning 4. I am excited about what the next year holds. Tea parties, dolls, the occasional truck and lots of pretend shopping and dress-ups. However, there is something that I have become increasingly concerned about: the rapid rise of early puberty in children, especially in young girls. Girls are entering puberty before the age of nine and some girls as young as three are developing breasts. This shocked me as a parent, and might shock you too.
However there are things you can do to help to prevent early puberty. I want to share with you what I have discovered during my investigation into why this is happening and what we, as parents and professionals can do.
What is ‘Precocious’ Puberty?
Puberty is a time of rapid growth. It’s the time when a young person’s sexual and reproductive organs mature and they are capable of reproducing. As you may already be aware, the age at which our young girls are reaching puberty has dropped dramatically over the last 100 years. In the past, it was common for girls to enter puberty around 14 years of age.
These days we are now seeing girls entering puberty before the age of 12 and some even earlier than that. The appearance of secondary sex characteristics before the age of eight years old is known as precocious puberty.
Why does Precocious Puberty happen?
There are numerous theories as to why this precocious puberty is occurring, but no one factor stands out alone. It appears to be a multitude of factors, each playing their part in a concert of sorts. These factors include:
- Environmental toxins
In Chinese medicine, sexual development is related to something called the “life gate fire”. This fire is considered the basis of life, and thereby the basis of sexual development and reproductive functions. Chinese Medicine identifies three syndromes that can cause this fire to be ignited prematurely, resulting in precocious puberty. These include:
- Deficiency of Liver and Kidney yin
- Liver qi stagnation
- Damp Heat Accumulation
Environmental Toxins and Deficiency of Liver and Kidney Yin
Environmental toxins are everywhere. Since WWII, research has found that children are at risk of exposure to more than 85,000 synthetic chemical compounds. These chemical compounds have been found to contain “endocrine disruptors” or hormonal disruptors, which have been linked to the development of precocious puberty. Over 100 pesticide compounds have been identified as endocrine disruptors and human consumption of them has nearly quadrupled in the last 40 years.
The endocrine disruptors mimic natural hormones and act as though they were the key to the receptor ‘locks” and trick the cells into thinking that they are hormones. This can all lead to precocious puberty even in the absence of estrogen.
From the Chinese Medicine perspective, a child’s body is considered purely yang, and children have a tender and delicate yin-yang balance because their bodies are not yet fully developed. During this time of rapid growth and development, yang qi dominates, creating a state of relative yin deficiency. This yin deficiency in children, can be exacerbated by environmental toxins which can cause the fire to stir, leading premature puberty to begin.
These environmental toxins are used in everyday products, equipment used in the home or office, in our water, our food and in the air we breathe. They are found in everything from personal care products, cleaning products, baby and children’s toys, food storage containers, furniture, carpets, computers and phones and even the fire retardant materials used in pajamas and school uniforms.
Read more about Endocrine Disruptors here: Are Endocrine Disruptors Rendering You Infertile?
The exposure to certain chemical substances in the environment, some of them naturally occurring, others synthetic has raised concerns that early human exposure, even low doses could have adverse effects on health and development in childhood. Most of these substances often accumulate in fat tissue, which can lead to obesity and what is known as ‘Damp Heat Accumulation’
Obesity and Damp Heat Accumulation
Numerous studies suggest that being overweight is associated with early puberty in girls because fat cells not only store toxic chemicals, but they also manufacture the hormone estrogen. This additional source of estrogen found in excess body fat results in earlier breast development in young girls. Children with a higher fat content also have elevated levels of leptin, which can cause the brain to release further hormones essential for puberty. This also causes the development of secondary sexual characteristics including wider hips and increase fat deposits around the thighs and buttocks making the process even faster.
Chinese Medicine also identifies the relationship between obesity and the early stirring of the “life gate fire”. Damp Heat Accumulation is related to poor diet which often leads to obesity. The spleen and stomach are responsible for transforming and transporting the food and fluids we consume, and they can easily be damaged by processed foods, sugary drinks, artificial flavors and additives. These foods overwhelm the digestive system, leading to food stagnation. This food can sit undigested in the digestive system, generating heat and dampness known collectively as damp heat. This damp heat stirs the “life gate fire”, contributing to early puberty.
Stress and Liver Qi Stagnation
Early puberty can also be triggered in girls who experience psychological stress as a result of growing up in households with high levels of family stress. This social stress and deprivation (i.e. parental stress, contentious divorce, adoption and sexual abuse) are also well known to negatively affect the physical health in children. A 2005 study found that an absent father at age 14 predicted an earlier age of puberty.
Psychological and emotional stress can also cause the Liver qi to stagnate. The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi around the body. When this does not occur due to undue stress placed on a girl, it caused the liver to become stagnated. Once stagnated, it can generate heat and fire, stirring the “life gate fire”, leading to early puberty.
What are the consequences?
Early puberty has more consequences than just the physical, it can impact the emotional wellbeing and increase the potential for further psychological stress on our young girls. Girls may appear older than they are and may be subjected to sexual innuendos or teasing. This can occur well before the girls are emotionally or physiologically ready to deal with such issues.
Another consequence is that early puberty means early estrogen production. Estrogen represses growth by closing epiphyses in puberty. This means that girls are starting puberty and getting their periods well before their pubescent growth spurt at around 12-14 years. This early epiphyseal maturation can lead to compromised final height.