Kids are growing up too fast these days and it is not just in attitude! I see girls and boys in my clinic who are showing signs of early puberty and this is on the rise. Children as young as 4 or 5 are developing body odour, acne, breast buds and even pubic hair. Often these are kids are very tall and mature for their age, but this is not always the case. Find out why this is happening and what you can do to slow things up.
The physical signs of puberty changes start when the brain triggers the production of sex hormones and this usually starts at around 11 years old for girls and usually around 12 for boys. Breast growth is usually the first sign of the start of puberty for girls, and for boys it is an increase in the size of testicles. If this is happening in your child years earlier then read on.
Why do we need to worry about early puberty, also known as precocious puberty? Firstly short stature is a big risk. Even though the kids often seem tall for their age when going through early puberty, they can end up being quite short as an adult. This is because when puberty stops, growth stops and if puberty is early then growth is halted early and the other kids overtake.
There can be a link between early puberty and behavioural problems. Certainly whilst they are going through puberty hormones can cause some pretty extreme “teenage behaviours”, so watch out for this. Going through puberty can be a stressful time and when this is happening to your child before the others in their class, then they may get embarrassed in the changing rooms.
In my clinic I often see early maturity being a pre-cursor to other hormonal issues later in life such as endometriosis, fibroids and polycystic ovaries or just plain awful periods. Fertility may also be a challenge, especially if trying for a baby later on in life.
Why is this happening? Why my child?
There are many theories on why kids are maturing faster these days. A number of people put this down to the change in the environment, diet and increased stress, and I sit in this camp.
We are exposed to thousands of chemicals on a daily basis and many are seen as environmental toxins. A one off exposure is probably not going to upset your child’s system but daily habits involving products containing these toxins can build up in the system. These chemicals can impact on how the body functions, particularly on the endocrine system.
Synthetic chemicals, known as xeno-oestrogens in products like drinking water, plastics and perfumes can mimic hormones and disrupt the delicate endocrine balance. We are all exposed to these chemicals daily, and we are especially vulnerable to them during phases of accelerated development such as whilst in the womb and throughout childhood.
We are surrounded by plastic! Most food is wrapped in plastic, beauty products live in plastic containers, and we tend to drink water out of plastic bottles. Even till receipts have a plastic coating. The main ones to avoid are the shatterproof plastics often containing bisphenol-A (known as BPA), and flexible vinyl (PVC) contains phthalates. Both of these chemicals are known to disrupt your hormones. Aim to store food in glass jars or wrap in parchment paper or beeswax wraps. Also opt for beauty products in glass bottles if possible and drink out of BPA free, stainless steel or glass water bottles.
Hormone disrupting phthalates are also found in the fragranced of beauty products, shampoo and household cleaning products. Choosing fragrance-free creams, cleaning products, and laundry detergents are simple steps you can make to cut down on exposure to phthalates. If you like your products to smell lovely, then opt for paraben free products that are certified organic (which promises no synthetics) or use essential oils such as lavender, orange or lemon oil.
Even though they’re linked to hormone disruption, flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) are still sprayed on many household items. By law sofas, armchairs, mattresses and carpets need to be treated with flame retardants, so try and air any new furniture for several days/weeks in a separate room from where your children sleep or play. Clothes, especially nightwear are also laced with fire retardants, and you should wash any new clothes several times before your child wears them. These chemicals do not stay in the furniture forever, so these chemicals are probably living in your household dust as well; research shows that tiny particles can escape from electronics, sofas, and mattresses. This is why it is extra important to hoover and dust regularly.
On the whole diet has changed significantly over the past 30 years or so. Despite healthy eating messages from the media, kids are eating more and more refined sugar and white flour products. White flour acts on the body just like sugar and even one slice of white bread can spike blood sugars considerably. One of the biggest causes of women’s hormone issues, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, is an inability to regulate their response to refined carbohydrates. One sign your child is not tolerating carbohydrates well is a more rounded belly. Girls who mature early often go on to develop other endocrine issues when they are older, and it is thought that early puberty is an early sign of sensitivity to white carbohydrates.
Foods that help the liver remove these toxins from the body more easily are the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and rocket. Even if these are not your child’s favourite foods, it is important to get them eating them on a daily basis. If they are super fussy then hide these in smoothies, soups and sauces or even brownies! Flax seeds (also known as linseeds) contain xeno-ostrogen busting properties and should also be given daily. Some people find it easy to sprinkle them on cereals, toast or add them to smoothies. Others include flax seed oil in salad dressings. Always store flax in the fridge to retain their delicate omega 3 oils and to keep the taste fresh.
Need for Probiotics
Gut flora plays an important role in keeping oestrogen levels in check in kids. After being broken down by the liver, oestrogen naturally leaves the body through the stool. However when the microbiome is out of sync and unwanted bacteria dominate, an enzyme is produced which interrupts this process and reactivates the oestrogen, so it is reabsorbed by the bowel. If the gut flora is out of sync for a long time (this happens if a child is on frequent antibiotics) this can contribute to oestrogen dominance. If you suspect an out of sync gut, then it is good idea to supplement with a probiotic to help rebalance and reduce excess oestrogen build up. Adding fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi can also make a big difference.
Stress seems to be impacting on kids earlier and earlier. Expectations for little people seems to be increasing and as well as pressure at school, the full social lives, after school activities can be too much for many children. Even if they do not show classic stress signs of crying or withdrawing, they may show more subtle signs like being unable to get to sleep or just being plain grumpy and difficult.
Changing daily habits and approaches to products you use in the house is a very important step, but what can you do if your child is showing signs of puberty already? here are some ideas:
- Feed your children hormone free meat, dairy and eggs. Opt for organic is possible.
- Give them cruciferous vegetables daily (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, rocket).
- Include flax seeds and flax seed oil daily in their diet.
- Avoid family food containing refined sugar and foods containing white flour.
- Filter your family drinking water and invest in a BPA free drinking bottle for everyone.
- Choose organic and paraben-free bath and household products.
- Give your children probiotics and fermented foods such as yoghurt and kefir.
- Keep stress under control. Epsom salt and lavender oil baths and lots of quiet family time may well help.
- Estrogens, breast cancer, and intestinal flora.
- Increased levels of bisphenol A (BPA) in Thai girls with precocious puberty.
- Relating Phthalate and BPA Exposure to Metabolism in Peripubescence. The Role of Exposure Timing, Sex, and Puberty
- Prenatal and peripubertal phthalates and bisphenol A in relation to sex hormones and puberty in boys.