Precocious Puberty – A Growing Dilemma for Today's Children

January 30, 2017 | Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

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 Precocious Puberty – A Growing Dilemma for Today's Children
In quiet conversations, simple observations, and various parental discussion groups, parents, teachers, and healthcare providers are facing a plight that is changing the norms for our children’s growth and development – precocious puberty. Many children who face this are wondering “What is wrong with me” and “Why am I so different?” In some cases, children as young as three years of age are experiencing early puberty symptoms. This early development raises numerous questions and concerns and has many consequences that affect social, mental, emotional, and physical health. This disturbing trend now affects up to 20 percent of children. As we face this challenge, we need learn how to protect children from the growing layers of insult that leads to these early hormonal changes.

What is Precocious Puberty?

Precocious puberty is early puberty that starts before age 8 in a girl or 9 in a boy. Today’s normal age range for puberty in girls is 9-16 and in boys is 13-15. The average age for a girl's first menstrual cycle in the early 1900’s was 14. In the 1860’s, medical history records menses onset at an average age of 15-16.

Mayo Clinic describes precocious puberty signs and symptoms as breast growth or the onset of menstrual period in girls. In boys, facial hair growth, usually first on the upper lip, deepening voice, and enlarged testicles and penis occurs. Both genders experience pubic or underarm hair, rapid growth, acne, and adult body odor before 8 and 9 years of age. Imagine explaining this to your kindergartner who is still learning how to tie his/her shoes.

There are two types of early puberty – central and peripheral precocious puberty. In central precocious puberty, the process just starts too soon. Something in the brain, genetics, or even hypothyroidism triggers a flood of hormones and early onset of puberty. In this case, it is often considered idiopathic - the medical jargon for “we don’t know”.

Peripheral precocious puberty is less common. It occurs because the ovaries, testicles, adrenal glands, or pituitary glands are secreting too much estrogen or testosterone. Outside sources of estrogen and testosterone are causes, but the medical establishment only considers prescription drugs and ignores environmental concerns.

Consequences for early puberty are not just social and peer stress. They also include increased cancer risk, depression, anxiety, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, loss of bone height and short stature.

Medical treatment for idiopathic precocious puberty is monthly injections of a drug called Lupron. Lupron blocks hormone production in the body. In adults, it is used to treat prostate cancer, breast cancer, PCOS, endometriosis or uterine fibroids.

Risk factors cited by Mayo Clinic include being a girl, African-American ethnicity, obesity, being exposed to estrogen or testosterone from prescription sources, radiation treatment to the brain for cancer treatments, or rare medical conditions. Medicine considers hypothyroid induced early puberty to be rare, but research shows this link and identifies several other risk factors with leptin and our environment. Understanding these other factors opens the door to better management and hopefully prevention of this “idiopathic” phenomenon in our children and future generations.

Elevated Leptin Found In Precocious Puberty

Elevated leptin levels have been found in children with early puberty. Research has shown children who enter puberty early with either normal body weight or excess body weight had significantly elevated leptin levels. Elevated androgens, obesity and insulin resistance are other factors seen in early puberty. Leptin regulation and programming start in pregnancy and early development. Receptors sites, enzyme systems, and the establishment of the endocrine system is being primed in the unborn child. If the mother is struggling with leptin and other hormone issues, it affects the genetic program of the unborn child. Researchers are convinced that metabolic programming of endocrine organs and metabolic hormones like adiponectin, leptin, and other fat hormones start in utero and in newborns affecting childhood and adolescence. They are also certain that common everyday chemicals affect this biological programming more than originally thought.

Endocrine Disrupting Compounds Provoking Early Puberty

Numerous studies relate the role of endocrine disrupting compounds on both types of early puberty. Phthalates and bisphenols are well-known toxic endocrine disrupting compounds that affect us all. Not surprising, these detrimental, ubiquitous chemicals wreak havoc with children causing both central and peripheral precocious puberty. While mainstream medicine fails to include this as a risk factor, clear evidence exists.

In addition to phthalates and bisphenols, there are other compounds linked with early puberty. A study, released a few weeks ago, found an association between fetal and childhood exposure of DDT, PBDE (flame retardants) and PCBs to changes in endocrine and reproductive hormones. The study called the CHAMACOS followed boys from birth to age 12 in California’s Salinas Valley. Evidence identified a definite relationship to the child’s BMI and prenatal exposure to these various endocrine disrupting compounds. These chemicals affected hormone levels and caused early puberty. The scientists advised further follow-up into adulthood to evaluate continued long-term adverse effects.

Girls are also affected by flame retardant exposure. A study released a few months ago found girls who reached early puberty had higher blood levels of flame retardants than the control group of girls. This study primarily focused on the highest risk group of girls with the most flame retardant exposure. A surprising finding, however, was that all 124 girls average age 5-7 had significant levels of flame retardants in their blood. Flame retardants are found in mattresses, household dust, common household furniture, electronics, motor vehicles, clothing, especially foam or polyurethane foam. It was also found that girls with higher amounts flame retardants had a higher body mass index (BMI) and obesity.

Glyphosate-based herbicides, like Roundup, add to the conundrum of altered puberty and development. A small number of animal studies have looked at this and confirm that maternal exposure and early life exposure of offspring to glyphosate mixture is related to early onset puberty in males. Toxicity occurred at doses considerably lower than “acceptable” daily exposure from the glyphosate and adjuvants. No research exists yet on how this affects females, but common sense tells us to be on the lookout.

Traffic-related air pollution is also linked with early puberty. In a first of its kind study with traffic-related air-pollution, scientists found that girls who lived near a major residential roadway reached puberty several months earlier than girls who lived in areas with less traffic.

Exposure to EDCs like BPA, phthalates, DDT, pesticides, etc., during pregnancy, specifically while the unborn child’s reproductive tract is under development, has been shown to affect the body well into adulthood. We see this in children with precocious puberty, but the domino effect continues into adulthood with prostate problems, uterine fibroids, PCOS, and premature ovarian failure, and various cancers. Prenatal chemical exposure is driving genetics and hormone enzymatic pathways to be reprogrammed in unhealthy ways.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Cancer Radiation

Traumatic brain injury is another factor that can cause early puberty. Traumatic brain injuries, like concussions, are a relatively common occurrence in childhood from sports, falls, or even motor vehicle accidents. Trauma to the brain may impact the pituitary and hypothalamus, which can result in growth disturbances. In moderate to severe brain trauma, it may affect growth for several months, or even several years after the injury. One recent study found that five years after a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury, nearly 30 percent of children had pituitary function compromised. This may affect growth hormone levels, puberty, thyroid and adrenal function, and sexual development. Parents need to keep this in the back of their mind if this is part of their child’s history.

Substance P, is involved with the regulation of puberty and fertility. This neurochemical or neuropeptide is involved with pain perception. When substance P was elevated in animal models, it was linked with early puberty onset. Traumatic brain injuries involve substance P release. Is this another piece to the puzzle for early puberty in some children? It would seem likely.

As cancer rates rise globally and more children are treated with radiation for brain cancer, research shows us that nearly 25 percent of these children suffer from at least one endocrine disorder within the first five years, including early puberty, after their cancer diagnosis. The longer the course of treatment and the earlier in life the radiation treatment occurred, the greater the likelihood of precocious puberty or other endocrine disorders like thyroid and adrenal dysfunction.

Layers of insult, from conception to childhood appear to be major forces that cause “idiopathic” precocious puberty. Challenges in prenatal or early childhood with high levels of leptin, obesity, insulin resistance, ubiquitous endocrine disrupting compounds like flame retardants, phthalates, BPA, Roundup/glyphosate and adjuvants, traffic air-pollution, cancer treatments, and brain injuries create this cumulative effect.

Parents who are in the process of starting a family MUST be proactive in going “green” with less exposure of toxic chemicals. Reduction and removal of plastics, pesticides, and other endocrine disrupting compounds and getting leptin back in balance is crucial before conception and early infant life. Wool is a natural, non-toxic flame retardant. Consider using an organic wool mattress pad or mattress for your family, especially for infants and young children, to avoid the nightly exposures to endocrine disruptor compounds. Reconsider the type of pajamas your child sleeps in.

Several articles on our website provide helpful and in-depth suggestions for detoxification of endocrine disrupting compounds, getting leptin and other hormones balanced and natural support helping the brain to recover after injury.

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Threaten Human Health

Endocrine Disruptor Compounds and Your Hormones

Endocrine Disruptor Compounds and Natural Solutions

Powerful Nutrition for Common Chemical Exposures

Meds, Toxins, and Obesity Cause Hormone Issues in Men and Boys

Chemical Soup: Pesticide Adjuvants and Low Chemical Exposures Proving Dangerous

What is Leptin?

A New Leptin Link to Fertility

Elevated Leptin Causes Autoimmune Thyroid Disorders Hashimoto’s and Grave’s Disease

How to Recover from a Concussion – Athletes Take Note

Plastics, phthalates and parabens are detoxified out through the glucuronidation phase II pathway of the liver. Some individuals clear these toxins out easily, others do not because of genetics or nutrient deficiencies. 

Children face enough challenges today without having to understand why their body looks so much different from their classmates. We can’t control common public environments, but we can make choices about how we live in our home and what our children are exposed to from day one. What we do today makes a difference to our children and our children’s children.

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