A Growing Problem? Early Puberty in Girls, Part 1

Puberty is no easy thing for anyone involved, the parent or the child.  Throw in the great possibility of the onset of puberty at an earlier age than 20-30 years ago, and you may have a bigger set of issues.  The anxiety of watching your daughter experience early onset of puberty is not specific to just the adolescent stage in development though.  Because of the increased exposure time to estrogen, early pubertal girls are at higher risk of developing breast and endometrial cancer as adults.

Last week, we discussed the potential benefits or possible negative effects of the consumption of soy.  One of the possible negative effects that has been suggested is the presence of phytoestrogens in soy.  These phytoestrogens combined with the FDA’s increase in the allowable amount of soy fillers in school lunches and restaurant food, has some theorizing that soy is to blame for the growing trend in the earlier onset of puberty in girls.  As always, let’s dive right into this issue and see what the research says.  (Note: I have chosen to break this post down into 2 weeks because the information is so extensive.  Next week, I will attack only the subject of food as it may relate to early puberty.)

A 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that the early pubertal development in girls is greater today than that reported 10 to 30 years ago.  There are two different types of precocious (or early) puberty: central and peripheral.  Peripheral is where our focus is in this post; however, the mayo clinic indicates that this type of early puberty is less common than central (medical condition).  Peripheral precocious puberty is caused by the “release of estrogen or testosterone into the body.”

Potential Causes of Early Puberty:

  • Obesity Epidemic: One third of children are now overweight and this could be related to an early puberty trend.  A study published in Pediatrics (September 2010) found that heavier girls with higher body-mass index were more likely to begin puberty early.
  • Environmental Chemicals: Researchers are concerned about toxins in the environment that contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.  Animal studies show that toxins can affect the age of puberty.  These chemicals include pesticides, flame retardants, bisphenol-A (BPA; an estrogen-like chemical found in plastics) and estrogen or testosterone found in creams or ointments.  The affect of the chemicals on puberty may not be gender specific.  Rather, both animal and human studies suggest that male development may also be affected by environmental chemicals.
  • Gender: Girls are much more likely than boys to start puberty early.
  • Race: African-American children are at higher risk than other races to undergo early development.
  • Underlying Medical Conditions: There are underlying medical conditions that may promote puberty, such as McCune-Albright syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and possibly hypothyroidism.

The subject of early puberty discussed here is not meant to be exhaustive.  There is an extensive community of research and opinion on the subject.  One could easily write a thesis on the subject (and I’m sure some have).  I have chosen to resist that temptation (already wrote a couple of those many years ago).  However, I encourage you to dive into the literature yourself to find out more.  As noted above, I will continue with the second part of this discussion next Monday and focus on how food may contribute to early puberty.

Do you have anything to add to this discussion, either anecdotal or scientific?


Sources: Pediatrics, September 2010USA Today; Mayo Clinic; livestrong.com

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Shared at Monday Mania, Fat Tuesday, Traditional Tuesdays, Hearth and Soul Blog Hop and Homestead Barn Hop.

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11 Responses to A Growing Problem? Early Puberty in Girls, Part 1

  1. Carol says:

    My daughters are young adults now, but when they were toddlers we began substituting soy milk for dairy milk due to allergies. We also took all refined sugar and white flour out of the diet. I vaguely recall research that indicated refined foods were one part of the diet issue leading to early puberty. Our frequent use of soy did not have an effect. My girls were 14 and 16 years old when they had their first menstrual periods. By modern standards they had delayed puberty.

    The other issue I recall is the trace amounts of hormone found in dairy milk due to the hormone treatments that cattle receive in order to stimulate continuous milk production.

    • Cook says:

      Thank you for sharing anecdotal evidence on the affect of soy in your family. I am going to address the specific link between food and puberty next Monday. Hope to see you back again!

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. jill says:

    This post is so informative. I would love for you to come
    share it at FAT TUESDAY. I hope you will
    put FAT TUESDAY on your list of carnivals to visit
    and link to each week!


  3. Kelleigh says:

    Your research is very interesting! I wonder about the impact of excess phytoestrogens in the diets of young girls. They maybe great for older women as their natural hormone production ramps down – but girls entering puberty?

    The obesity hypothesis is interesting too. I recall that fat cells secrete estrogen. Perhaps this could be a biological trigger for early puberty overweight girls?

    • Cook says:

      I’m going to look at how diet (specific foods like soy, cow’s milk, etc.) next week. There was so much information that I couldn’t fit it all in this week.

      Check back in next week for Part 2.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Jill says:

    This is a very real issue. I live in Milwaukee – a city with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates. What worries me is that the earlier onset of puberty will naturally lead to an earlier onset of the sex drives and we’ll see an even bigger problem of girls having babies waaaay too soon. As you say, dealing with a child going through puberty isn’t easy as it is….but how do you explain all the complexities of hormones, menstration, sexual drivers, etc. to a six-seven-or eight year old??? That conversation is tricky with a teenager. How do you get a small child to wrap their head around it all?? It’s definately something we all need to think about!

    • Cook says:


      You are so right. Although the research didn’t mention the teen pregnancy problem with early puberty onset, it did pose the issue of what children do with these hormones. It is an unfortunate, but natural state of man to undergo earlier sex when the hormones are present. It is a big problem, but I don’t hear much about it in terms of finding solutions. Researchers are still trying to wrap their heads around the growing trend. There are so many possible factors contributing to this trend that they don’t know what to do with it.

      Thank you for your comment. Next week, I plan to address the research behind the link between food and puberty. Hope to see then.

  5. jill says:

    Thanks for linking your great post to FAT TUESDAY. Hope to see you next week! Be sure to visit RealFoodForager.com on Sunday for
    Sunday Snippets – your post from Fat Tuesday may be featured there!


  6. Pingback: A Growing Problem? Research Behind Younger Puberty in Girls, Part 2 | The Willing Cook

  7. Swathi says:

    I read that hormone present in the milk is responsible to early purbety. So we using Oaks farms still don’t know it going to help or not, as my little one is 2 year now. Thanks for sharing wonderful article to Hearth and soul blog hop.

    • Cook says:

      Thanks for checking in. Researchers aren’t certain that milk is the culprit and some have disclaimed it completely, but the general public has certainly been moving away from it. That is the reason so many milk labels now have a line that reads “Does not contain rBST hormone.”

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