In today’s world, we’re seeing more girls than ever going through puberty at a much younger age.
We know that girls as young as seven years old are getting their menstrual cycle, and going through all the changes of puberty.
Yet, these poor girls aren’t able to comprehend fully the emotional changes that go with it, or what it means for them on a reproductive level.
Changing Menstrual Patterns
It wasn’t that long ago the average girl would begin menstruating around the age of 16 or 17.
One average, the general consensus was that girls would start menstruation at about 14 years old.
By the early 2000s, the average had fallen to less than 13 years old. Today, it has fallen again, to as young as 7 years old.
What we forget is that even before a girl has her first period there are signs of maturation that signal impending changes. These signs are also coming earlier. So really, some girls are beginning their puberty phase when they are 5 or 6 years old.
A generation ago, fewer than 5 percent of girls of this age would see the changes in their bodies that go with puberty – changes such as breast growth, body hair, acne, pubic hair and so on.
But now, many of these young girls are seeing the start of these changes around 7 years old, with the average age being 8 years old. This is increasingly becoming the norm, and some experts think this age is still falling. Some doctors see fit to begin assessing girls for puberty-related changes at age 6.
Classically, ‘precocious puberty’ is a term defining puberty that begins before the age of 8 years in girls, and 9 years in boys, but this is no longer universally accepted.
In general, experts are now saying that 7 is probably a normal age for children to show some signs of puberty. While there are some who might not agree, we need to start asking the big question: Why is this happening?
Are There Any Risks With Early Puberty?
So far, researchers haven’t proved there are physical risks that come with early maturity. It could, however, pose a significant risk to women’s ongoing fertility, and bone health. It could also be putting women into menopause earlier, too.
Many researchers have suggested the main risks associated with precocious puberty are not biological. Recent studies have found that girls who began the process early had an increased risk of depression during their adolescent years.
There are also social risks that can disrupt a girl’s healthy development.
Puberty can be very confusing and emotionally damaging for girls. They might face “sexual innuendo or teasing” long before they’re ready for it, according to researchers and experts. Early puberty could change the way a girl behaves, and the way others behave towards her.
This could pose other significant risk factors, such as early pregnancy, or exposure to STI’s, and many other things young girls are too young and naive to know about. It could also lead to earlier use of alcohol and drugs.
Why Early Puberty Is Becoming More Common
Researchers primarily blame childhood obesity, and endocrine disruptors, so I will explain these, and other factors, and what you can do to help your daughter avoid an early puberty.
#1: Diet and Early Puberty
One of the biggest issues for young girls, and women in general, is change in diet – particularly the increased consumption of highly processed foods and higher intake of grains.
This leads to higher levels of insulin in the body, which results in the body storing more fats. It also stops the body burning fats, which then creates inflammatory disease.
High insulin levels also lead to higher levels of estrogen in the body. As a result, more children become overweight. Girls also experience problems with changes to hormones, menstrual cycles and gynaecological conditions.
Childhood obesity rates have increased exponentially in the past 30 years. More than one-third of children and adolescents now weigh in as overweight or obese. What people fail to realise is these fat cells produce estrogens (now known as ‘Obestrogens’), which play a central role in girls’ bodies. They stimulate breast growth, cause problems with hormones, create gynaecological conditions and are a major factor in girls getting their cycles much younger.
#2: Obesity and Early Puberty
Researchers and experts say that obesity is leading to earlier puberty. This theory is well supported by the fact that girls’ breasts are developing at a much younger age, and the age at which they start to menstruate has declined. The ovaries control menstruation, signalling that earlier breast development might be occurring because of different variables, such as diet and environmental factors.
#3: Endocrine Disruptors and Early Puberty
As well as diet, lifestyle and obesity, there might be other factors at play. Girls of normal weight are starting puberty earlier as well, although at a lower rate than girls who are overweight, or obese.
Chemicals known as endocrine disruptors – such as the phthalates used in the production of plastics – are also potential contributors to early puberty, and have been cited as the most likely cause. Endocrine disruptors mimic estrogen, and also cause disruption to the reproductive function. Therefore, they could cause precocious breast growth, and issues connected with the menstrual cycle.
We know there are over 87,000 chemicals found in plastics and preservatives, in our foods, and even in our water ways. Detergents, and even small traces of the contraceptive pill, make their way into the water we drink.
#4: Stress and Early Puberty
Some experts have suggested stress during childhood can also play a role in prompting puberty.
Children face far more stresses now than children of generations gone by. Many children grow up in families where there is domestic violence, arguing at home, or violence in the neighbourhood. Girls who are exposed to such environments are more likely to begin puberty earlier.
There have been studies and research that have suggested girls who grew up without their biological fathers were twice as likely to have their period before the age of 12.
#5: Parental Health and Early Puberty
Scientists are even researching parental variables. Researchers now know the parental mode of inheritance, through genes, is one way parents’ health, diet and lifestyle are passed on to their children.
One study found overweight mothers who developed gestational diabetes while pregnant gave birth to daughters who would start puberty earlier in life, regardless of what the girls themselves weighed.
We also know now that the lifestyle ‘sins of the fathers’ can play a part in a child’s development. If the father isn’t healthy at the time of conception, or has genetic abnormalities, or genetic issues, these can be passed through the sperm and then on to a child. The child is affected with issues that are expressed later or, these days, early in life.
Regardless of whether the cause is environmental, genetic, biological, or a combination of factors, precocious puberty could be reaching a biological breaking point.
Prevention and Getting Help
All of the above are reasons why we need to be more vigilant of our children’s health, right from the start. We can pass our genetic disposition onto our children. For that reason, we also need to be aware of our own health before we conceive.
Early intervention and prevention are at the centre of managing any issue such as this. We need to teach our children to develop good eating habits from a young age, to have a healthy active body, and also to be in touch with their bodily functions and emotions at a young age.
Period Pain and PMS Symptoms Are NOT Normal
Period pain and menstrual irregularities (for example clotting, cramping and mood swings) are not normal, and we need to teach young girls this.
Please read our article about what a healthy menstrual cycle should be like, to familiarise yourself and your daughter with it.
Young girls can certainly have gynaecological issues such as Endometriosis and PCOS. We know this beyond a doubt. The earlier you address any menstrual and gynaecological issues, the better the long term prognosis for your daughters’ health and future fertility overall.
Not all women’s health specilialists are the same, and many want to put girls and women on the pill to ‘fix’ menstrual issues. This is often merely a bandaid, which can simply mask damage being done underneath.
If you or your daughter need help with menstrual issues, or if you want to know more about optimal menstrual health, please book in and see me – sooner rather than later.
The earlier we start educating young women about what is normal and healthy, the better it is for them later on in life, and for their future health and fertility.
Articles posted on BellyBelly which are not written by Doctor Andrew Orr are the opinions of BellyBelly and not necessarily the opinion of Doctor Andrew Orr.