A hundred years ago, the average age for a girl to begin menstruating was 16 or 17 years old. Today, that age has fallen to less than 13 years old, with the most dramatic decline occurring in the past three decades.
The first menstrual period, or menarche, is the most significant event in female puberty, but it is actually one of the last in a series of hormone-induced changes that span four to five years, beginning with breast development, body and pubic hair, bone growth spurt, and a general shift in body composition and shape. Once a girl starts her period, she is nearing the end of physical maturation.
The medical community considers any onset of sexual development before age eight to be precocious puberty, and it is increasingly common.
Is it harmful?
The physical and psychological ramifications of precocious puberty are profound. Early and prolonged exposure to the ovary-produced hormone estrogen can increase the chances of certain cancers, asthmas, and metabolic syndromes, and is proven to cause the growth plates in the bones to seal prematurely, resulting in a smaller-than-expected skeletal stature. Girls in early puberty will experience a growth spurt and may be taller than their peers for a while, but once the bones have fused, they are done growing.
In addition to the biological complications, girls who mature early face a greater risk of depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other social challenges that accompany a sexually-developed body. Our culture makes assumptions based on appearances, regardless of emotional preparedness. Think back on your own adolescence and imagine navigating that tumultuous time three years earlier.
Why is this happening?
One likely culprit is the obesity epidemic. To ensure that a body can withstand the rigors of fertility, the brain requires a certain percentage of adipose tissue (body fat) before the pituitary gland will instruct the ovaries to begin releasing hormones. The sooner this is reached, the sooner the endocrine system activates the sex organs.
Compounding the process is the fact that fat cells themselves produce estrogen. With childhood obesity rates having quadrupled over the past decade, this undoubtedly accounts for a high percentage of precocious puberty.
The obesity theory does not explain everything, though, because not all obese girls develop early and not all girls who develop early are overweight by any measure. There are other factors at play. Researchers believe variables, like stressors in the home, violence, unstable parental relationships, the mother having gestational diabetes, and even intense emotional reactions can reduce the age of menarche. The theory being that hastening reproduction is an evolutionary response to one’s surroundings, and it safeguards genetic material.
Scientists agree the other major contributor linked to this phenomenon is exposure to chemicals containing endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs). An endocrine disrupter, when introduced by ingestion or transdermally, will mimic, alter, or weaken the body’s natural hormones (estrogen in particular), thus interfering with the intricate glandular signals.
EDCs can be naturally occurring or manufactured and are widely found in household and personal care products. The list of items manufactured out of materials comprised of these compounds includes vinyl coverings (especially mattress and pillow protectors), sunscreen, dryer sheets, air fresheners, cleaning solutions, shampoo, and many fragranced products.
Bisphenol A (BPA), the celebrity villain of the plastic world, is currently being phased out due to concerns about its harmful effects.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that lavender and tea tree oils, used as fragrances and therapeutic agents in bath and beauty products as well as in essential oils treatments, were found to stimulate estrogen receptors and disrupt the hormone signaling pathways.
What can we do?
Being physically active and maintaining a normal body weight, as well as being diligent about avoiding environmental contributors will reduce the risk of early puberty. Read labels, use plant-sourced and plant-based products whenever possible, and break the plastic habit. Understand also that despite our best efforts – and for reasons we have yet to understand – nature’s course is set, and a girl’s body will begin changing.
If you suspect your daughter is exhibiting signs of precocious puberty, the most common of which is unilateral or bilateral changes in the breasts before age eight, seek the opinion of a medical professional right away. There are safe and effective treatments, in the form of periodic injections or daily pills, that interrupt a girl’s development cycle, thus buying her time to fulfill her growth potential. The sooner she is evaluated, the better her chances of slow things down.
Eventually, all our girls will mature into women, leaving childhood behind, body and soul. The transition is never easy, but the longer they can stay young, the better equipped they will be for the journey.
It’s hard enough letting them go.