UNTIMELY PUBERTY – EARLIER THAN EARLIER”
Puberty for girls, in simple words, is “the period of sexual maturation and achievement of fertility”. This period is filled with series of significant physical changes coupled with hormonally triggered emotional changes.
What about boys? Of course they too go through this phase with their own set of hormonal changes. It will turn out to be very vast if we talk about both genders, so let us focus on females in this article.
“Normal” puberty onset can range from ages 8-13 years of age and may take, on average, 1.5 to 6 years to complete. But surprisingly around the world, the average age of menarche has dropped steadily since the 1900s as much as 5 years !!!! Girls now get their first period (aka menarche) earlier than when their grandparents’ did in their generation.
What is causing this global decline—and what are the potential long-term consequences?
Normal is no more Normal!
So what explains the decline? There are different theories including exposure to chemicals in the environment or food that affects our hormones—experts believe the biggest and most basic culprit is an increase in unhealthy fat in our diets.
This is why it is difficult to speak of a “NORMAL” age and time for puberty. We are adaptive creatures, so “NORMAL” is always changeable: dependent upon our environmental (personal and communal) conditions.
“Chemical world” is it a new Change?
Exposure to chemicals in our environment, particularly Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (which can mimic hormones in the body), 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. This should make us sit up and take notice as children are exposed continuously to low-level endocrine disruptors in their diets, drinking water and air supply. Also, hormonal active components, which have been linked to earlier pubertal development, can be found in a wide array of consumer products, including hair tonics, pesticides, packaging and building materials.
As more fat was introduced into diet of girls, the body responded by initiating puberty earlier—but during the recent years, there was a change in this scenario. Nutritional needs had been met, but the introduction of processed foods, microwaves, and other changes eating habits caused the age to keep dropping. That’s when the trend became unhealthy.
Puberty takes a great deal of energy—your body is accelerating—You need enough energy to go into Puberty “A larger BMI is associated with a higher level of the hormone LEPTIN , which tells the body you have enough energy reserves to engage in this pursuit called puberty.”
Thus, women with extremely high BMIs for their age may start puberty as young as 7 years old, and in turn, get their period before age 11—increasing their risk for a host of psychological, social, and health issues (more on these in a second).
Many lower income families don’t have access to or can’t afford fresh food, instead opting for what’s cheap—like soda and processed foods. And this processed food trend isn’t just happening in America or India but around the world, kids are being exposed to more fattening, less nutrient-dense foods.
The role of Leptin
We need to recognize the relationship between the hormone leptin and the hypothalamus (area close to brain which connects nervous system to d endocrine system). Body fat produces leptin. So, when a child gains enough weight, there is a threshold amount of leptin produced to signal the hypothalamus to kick off the first menstrual cycle. Since kids are becoming heavier sooner than they used to, their periods are also starting sooner.
The opposite is true for women who get too lean or who restrict calories too much.
Getting too lean decreases the amount of leptin circulating in the body. This, in turn, decreases the activity of the hypothalamus resulting in the loss of her period in elderly women.
Period age – mental health
1) Psychological and social challenges—from depression to eating disorders to all the problems that come from being viewed as a sex object while still a little girl. For e.g. you are 11 but you start looking like 15 but your brain is still 11 yrs old and you are still figuring out the balance.
2) Exhibit more high-risk social behaviors such as smoking, drinking, using drugs, and having unprotected sex, which can bring on its own set of problems.
Period age – physical health
1) The cancer risk may boil down to being exposed to estrogen for a longer period of time, as well as developing breast tissue sooner.
2) Women’s physiological sensors are highly tuned in to sensing deficits. Whether in energy balance, essential nutrients, or body fat, women’s bodies quickly respond to deficiencies.
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, there are also many social reasons why we should be concerned about the declining age of puberty.
While one may argue that as puberty declines, we may need to separate our notions of “childhood” from physiological development (7-year-old with breasts is no less a child than a 9-year-old who has not yet developed), society nevertheless projects a multitude of pressures on young girls who mature at an early age.
What can we do?
- Indulge your child into more physical activities /sports from early childhood and you exercise with them.
- Stay away from genetically modified food.
- Avoid packaged or fast food (Tran’s fat) which contains unhealthy fats and largely added sugar.
- BMI is an old school metric which takes only weight and height into account and conveniently ignores other more essential parameters like body fat, muscle mass, water level. So better monitor and track your BCA (body composition Analysis)
- Children’s diets should focus on whole plant foods rather than animal foods — this will keep protein intake in a safe range and reduce their consumption of EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals)
- Go for organic Milk
- Children’s diets should include a wide variety of natural plant foods as possible including, green vegetables, squashes, corn, carrots, tomatoes,mushrooms, nuts, seeds, avocado, beans, fruits and whole grains. This means that healthy eating is a lifetime event.
- Buy organic produce when possible to avoid synthetic pesticides.
- Minimize children’s exposure to BPA: Avoid using of rigid polycarbonate plastics (recycling label #7) whenever possible; Do not use plastic water bottles if they are old or scratched; Do not microwave in plastic containers; Minimize the use of canned foods.
When a girl does get her period at a young age, her family can and should step up to help her navigate the social challenges that may lie ahead.
Author: Sujal Sancheti
About Sujal: Architect | Designer | thinker | Fitness Coach | Personal Trainer | Nutritionist | Gymnast.
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