Puberty is an important physiological time in both the male and female roles, mainly due to the major transformations that are going on within the human body. Not only does puberty have an effect on the body physically, but mental, emotional, and social changes happen as well. Most of us probably don’t delve into the details of what actually happens when our bodies go through puberty, but the changes that occur have lifelong implications. (1)
With biological changes beginning around the average age of 12 in boys and average age of 11 in girls, events within the endocrine system begin as well. Hormones typically rise at the onset of puberty, then continue increasing at a steady rate until peaking around 25 years of age. Puberty also causes an increase in growth, occurring around the average age of 14 in boys and an average age of 12 in girls. So how early is too early for puberty to start? (2)
Looking deep within the biological realm of how puberty works, it’s interesting to see that all of these changes begin by the brain producing a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (otherwise known as GnRH). With the production of this hormone, a small gland in the brain called the pituitary gland activates the female ovaries to start making estrogen; estrogen then stimulates the body to begin puberty, and for physical changes to start, such as growing of the breasts. After this, females get their period within a certain amount of time, which also correlates with the process of puberty. (3)
But what happens when this process begins too early? Breast development has been noted in girls as young as age 7, with the onset of periods as early as age 8! (4) With signs of puberty beginning that early, there does come an increase in possible diseases later in life, even cancer. What is causing this to happen early though? The main factor: rising levels in body weight. This happens in several ways, but a significant one being that fat tissue, or adipose tissue, has a big impact on how metabolism works within the body. Fatty tissue can advertently change androgens to estrogen, and adipose can also increase the body’s resistance to insulin…this in turn decreases binding levels of sex hormones, and increases the availability of sex steroids. (4)
There is a substance called leptin that is found within these fatty tissues in the body, and plays a big part in the onset of puberty, fertility levels, and adipose storage. These levels of leptin increase before puberty begins, and studies have shown that there is a strong association between onset of when a female starts her period and the levels of leptin within the body. For example, an increase in leptin – and an increase in body fat – decreased the age of onset of menarch. (4)
So, what is the biggest physical consequence to puberty beginning early like this? The answer: increased exposure to estrogen. Estrogen is necessary in order to maintain many functions within the female body, including protecting against diseases and decreasing risk of osteoporosis as we age. (5) However, research has shown that excessive amounts of estrogen within the body (such as when beginning menstruation early) can lead to increased risks of breast cancer later on in life. Granted, this doesn’t take into consideration any lifestyle factors that might play a part, such as physical activity, drug and alcohol consumption, family history, diet, etc., but it is something to consider. (3) On top of cancer, the higher the estrogen the worse the ratio of testosterone, one of the more important immune protecting hormones we possess. Did you know that ⅛ people who develop an auto-immune disease are men? This is because testosterone is an immune regulating hormone! Because of various factors such as persistent organic pollutants (pesticides, plastics, flame retardants, etc.) our estrogen receptors are bombarded consistently and this in turn creates estrogen dominance and abnormal hormonal ratios, thereby triggering an inflammatory cascade which may lead to autoimmunity, cancer and one of the biggest red flags is premature onset menstrual period!
Other consequences that might arise from puberty starting early in females are the emotional and social aspects; for one, a decrease in self-confidence and increase in depression might present themselves in females who are developing at a quicker rate physically than their counterparts in school. Research has also shown that another consequence of early development in females are risky behaviors like drinking and early sexual activities, since they might be involved in social arenas that bring forth occasions that they aren’t prepared to emotionally and socially handle yet. (1)
What is the solution to these early puberty consequences in females? Incorporating fitness activities into everyday routines and ensuring adequate intake of fruits, veggies, and lean proteins can help, especially in relation to weight and overall emotional health (insulin resistance creates fat and fat makes estrogen!). Another possible benefit would be to learn about puberty and bodily changes early on, so that girls are educated when the time comes on what is happening with their bodies, and what to expect. (3)
From a functional medicine perspective you have to ask the hard questions…..Why? There are multiple potential scenarios why this could happen and you need to dig deeper into how the process developed and what can be done. One of my favorite ways to reduce estrogen in the body is through increasing fiber intake! Fiber binds onto estrogen which is why vegetables are so important on a daily basis. Also, broccoli seed sprouts or sauerkraut are superfoods that can also assist in the process (Hormone protect by xymogen is a great combo product!).
If you’re needing more help within the clinical nutrition realm of puberty and assistance with improving functional health at this important span of life, contact your local functional wellness doctors in the Denver metro/Boulder area in order to assist with anything you might need!
Let Your Health (not estrogen) Soar,
Ian Hollaman, DC, MSc, IFMCP
(1) Cavanagh, S. E., Riegle-Crumb, C., & Crosnoe, R. (2007). Puberty and the Education of Girls*. Social psychology quarterly, 70(2), 186–198.
(2) Blakemore, S. J., Burnett, S., & Dahl, R. E. (2010). The role of puberty in the developing adolescent brain. Human brain mapping, 31(6), 926–933. doi:10.1002/hbm.21052
(3) Maron, D. (2015). Early Puberty: Causes and Effects. Scientific American 312, 5, 28-30.
(4) Biro, F. M., Greenspan, L. C., & Galvez, M. P. (2012). Puberty in girls of the 21st century. Journal of pediatric and adolescent gynecology, 25(5), 289–294. doi:10.1016/j.jpag.2012.05.009
(5) Hilakivi-Clarke, L., de Assis, S., & Warri, A. (2013). Exposures to synthetic estrogens at different times during the life, and their effect on breast cancer risk. Journal of mammary gland biology and neoplasia, 18(1), 25–42. doi:10.1007/s10911-013-9274-8