To help girls going through early onset puberty, Dr Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist focusing on puberty, and Dr Julianna Deardorff, a clinical psychologist and researcher with expertise in pubertal development and adolescent health, have written a book about it. They discuss possible triggers, including emotional stress, foods and some ingredients in common household products, and provide ways to prevent or manage early puberty. They also provide guidance on how to discuss puberty age-appropriately with all girls going through it.
In her recent TEDMED Talk, Dr Greenspan discussed what early onset puberty actually means and discussed some of the triggers in more detail.
“When experts talk about the start of puberty, we are not discussing first periods,” she says. “The first sign of puberty in girls is actually breast development. At age 7, 15% of girls have signs of puberty such as breast budding…I still find it shocking when I goes clothes shopping for my kids and see bras being sold for 8 year old girls.”
But, does it matter that girls are physically maturing long before they are emotionally mature? “The evidence suggests that there are serious physical and psychological consequences,” she says. “As a teen, a girl who goes through puberty early is at a higher risk of being depressed, developing an eating disorder, abusing drugs and engaging in sexual activity earlier. As an adult, she’s at higher risk of breast cancer and heart disease. So, yes, there are scary consequences.”
She said obesity is the leading cause of early puberty: “Girls who are susceptible to early puberty are more likely to be overweight. Body fat makes oestrogens, the same kinds of hormones that are normally released from the ovaries during puberty. So when there’s more body fat, there’s higher levels of oestrogen, leading to breast budding.”
She also says stress is another leading cause of early puberty. Unfortunately, those girls more at risk of obesity are in lower socioeconomic groups, and are also more likely to be victims of stress.
And chemicals can play a part in early puberty, too. “Endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs) are the main concern because they mimic hormones in the body… Some EDCs can also cause obesity. Unfortunately, we live in a toxic soup of chemicals and we may never be able to isolate a single one as the cause.”
However, while she said she is concerned about EDCs, what would be a much better health intervention would be to tackle the obesity epidemic and protect children from the stressors of poverty. She added there are a number of changes we can make to start to turn things around, such as changing food labelling, making PE an important part of the curriculum and removing vending machines from schools.
“We can opt for alternatives to the sweet drinks, candy and cookies which seem to serve as universal rewards for school achievement or celebration after athletic events,” she added.
To find out more, or to order a copy of the book The New Puberty, visit www.thenewpuberty.com.
Read our article on Parenting Teens here.