How to Prevent Early Puberty in Girls



Early puberty. A phrase that strikes fear in the heart of this mother of two young girls. I don’t think any parent wants her daughter to deal with breasts at the age of 6, or menstruation in the 4th grade. So several weeks ago, when I happened upon an interview with pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan and clinical psychologist Julie Deardorff on the topic of early puberty in girls, I listened with great interest.

Definition of Normal Puberty Shifting


Soon after hearing the interview, I checked out The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls by Greenspan and Deardorff.  According to Greenspan and Deardorff in The New Puberty, “A girl in 1860 got her first period around 16. A girl in 1920 got it around 14. Today she’s likely to have a first period closer to 12 ½ years.” In addition, while the average age of menstruation has fallen 6 months in the last 40 years in Europe and America, the age of breast development has dropped by 2 years, which may be because breasts are especially sensitive to estrogen (and estrogen mimickers in the environment). This decreasing age for the onset of puberty in girls has been confirmed in numerous studies and cannot be explained simply by changes in nutrition, body weight, or body fat.

There are the rare girls with an actual disorder (called Central Precocious Puberty), but most girls entering puberty early are simply at the early end of the normal range. But as Greenspan and Deardorff point out, “this ‘normal curve’ has been a moving target for us in the medical community.” According to the authors, “Just a generation ago, less than 5 percent of girls started puberty before the age of 8; today, that percentage has more than doubled.” [Note that although popularly puberty is synonymous with the beginning of menstruation, medically speaking puberty begins in the brain with hormonal secretions from the pituitary. Breast development and pubic hair are often the first external signs.]

While the book The New Puberty specifically addresses early puberty in girls, the authors have this to say about boys: "It's beyond the scope of this book to cover the pubertal process in boys today...Although some data suggest that they too are starting sooner today, the jury is still out...Although we won't address boys specifically in this book, much of the advice we provide--how to encourage healthy habits and build emotional closeness, for example--applies to them as well." I think it goes without saying that most parents aren't interested in their boys being exposed to hormone disruptors (whether they mimic estrogen or something else) either.

Causes of Early Puberty


According to The New Puberty, there are three main suspects for the early onset of puberty: excess fat, chemicals, and stress.  

Excess fat.
The percentage of US children who are obese has almost tripled over the last 30 years. Total body fat mass can be thought of "as our largest endocrine (hormonal) 'organ,' much bigger than our pituitary, adrenals, thyroid, and sex glands combined," according to Greenspan and Deardorff.  Fat tissue generates numerous substances, including leptin and estrogen, which not only may contribute to early puberty but also encourage the buildup of more fat tissue. In addition, many environmental chemicals that disrupt normal hormonal activity are lipophilic and stored in fat.  

Social and psychological stressors, such as poor familial relationships or childhood trauma.
For example, absentee fathers are associated with early menstruation: “[g]irls who from an early age grow up in homes without their biological fathers are twice as likely to experience menarche early as are girls who grow up with both parents.” Childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse or a depressed mother are also associated with earlier onset of puberty. In addition, the strength of the infant-mother bond can influence when a girl goes through puberty.

Exposure to chemicals that disrupt normal biology, especially hormonal development.
Today's girls grow up in a sea of industrial pollutants and synthetic chemicals. Two hundred and thirty-two synthetic chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of infants at birth, which demonstrates exposure in the womb. In the course of the authors’ own research, “we’ve found detectable levels of every chemical that we’ve tested for – even those that were banned years ago.” About 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormones. 

Chemicals pollutants currently being studied for their effects on pubertal timing include:

Significantly, chemicals influencing hormones may also cause girls to accumulate more fat tissue, which itself secretes hormones.

Risks of Early Puberty


There are numerous risks associated with the early onset of puberty in girls. Behavioral health risks associated with early puberty include depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and body-image issues. Physical health risks include breast and ovarian cancers, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Based on researchers' current understanding of the causes of early puberty, Greenspan and Deardorff make a number of recommendations for managing environmental toxins and establishing a healthy lifestyle. The following suggestions are especially important for pregnant women and young girls because fetuses and children pass through “windows of susceptibility” that make them uniquely vulnerable to the effects of hormone disruptors, obesity, and stress on their pubertal timing. The first 21 tips are based on recommendations from The New Puberty plus an additional 4 suggestions I am making based on information presented in the book.


© Depositphotos.com/monkeybusiness

25 Ways to Prevent or Slow Down Early Puberty


  1. Eat less plastic: avoid canned foods (often lined with BPA or equally bad alternative plastic chemicals), cooking in Teflon, microwaving food in plastic (use glass) or storing food and beverages in plastic containers - particularly PVC (#3) or polycarbonate (#7). Use glass or stainless steel water bottles
  2. Limit sugar, a major culprit in fueling the childhood obesity epidemic. Spikes in insulin from high sugar consumption can result in higher concentrations of the sex hormones connected to earlier periods. In fact, a recent study has specifically linked soda consumption by young girls to earlier puberty. 
  3. Cook from scratch as often as possible to avoid a host of unhealthy, non-food ingredients found in canned, processed, and prepared foods.
  4. Eat more whole fruits and vegetables. Fiber has been shown to protect girls from early menstruation. Buy organic when possible to avoid exposure to pesticides, but don't limit consumption if you can't afford organic. Consult EWG’s annual report on pesticides in produce to help you limit your family's exposure. 
  5. Shop at the farmers market. This is a fabulous way to get fresh, local, and sometimes organic (or at least no-pesticide) produce at great prices. Go to localharvest.org to find markets near you. Read up on how to get the most out of your farmers market here. Of course an even more local option is to plant your own garden or participate in a community garden!
  6. Eat less meat, and choose low-fat, antibiotic-free, organic meats. Antibiotics are given to livestock not only to help prevent illness, but to fatten them up and cause them to mature faster. Their effect on human maturation is uncertain. Use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch lists to help you choose fish with the lowest amount of toxins.
  7. Choose low-fat, organic dairy products.
  8. Avoid suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals in personal products. Avoid fragrance or parfumtriclosan and triclocarbon found in antibacterial soaps and toothpastes, aluminum chlorohydrate found in deodorantsphthalates, and other hormone disruptors. I was particularly interested that the authors recommend avoiding tea tree oil and lavender as potential endocrine disruptors, as these ingredients are frequently found in "natural" personal products and cleaning products. Click here for more information on choosing non-toxic personal products.
  9. Use only the safest sunscreens. Focus on using clothing and hats to limit sun exposure, and use sunscreen on faces and other exposed areas.
  10. Choose non-toxic cleaners. Read this post to learn how to identify one (note that labels such as “natural,” “non-toxic,” and “green” are unregulated – you need to do your own homework). The authors specifically mention avoiding borax and boric acid, which is notable, since borax is often considered a “natural” cleaner.
  11. Keep indoor air healthy. Frequently open windows, change A/C and heating filters every 3-6 months, clean ducts annually, avoid air deodorizers and plug-in room fresheners.
  12. Reduce household dust to limit exposure to ubiquitous flame retardants, lead, and other toxic chemicals: frequently vacuum with a HEPA filter, wet mop, and wipe down surfaces and windowsills).
  13. Choose mattresses and furniture made of natural materials (such as cotton, wool, and natural latex). Polyurethane foam disintegrates over time and releases tiny potentially harmful particles. Avoid synthetic flame retardants and stain-resistant and water-resistant chemicals. Click here for additional ways to limit exposure to flame retardants without buying new furniture.
  14. Avoid manufactured wood products which frequently off-gas formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals.
  15. Choose solid flooring and area rugs over synthetic wall-to-wall carpet, which off-gasses, particularly when new, and traps toxic dust. Hire an expert to remove or replace old carpet.
  16. Control pests without toxic pesticides and herbicides. We've successfully battled ants, cockroaches, gnats, and fruit flies without resorting to hiring a pest control company or using EPA-registered pesticides.
  17. Get adequate sleep. Be strict about LED screen use (especially before bedtime), as the particular wavelength of light emitted is known to disrupt secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin which could possibly play a role in the onset of early puberty. LED screens are common on tablets and computers.
  18. Establish a healthy level of fitness as a family (30 to 60 minutes of exercise per day). Reduce risk of injury by participating in a variety of sports and activities.
  19. Choose a K-8 school to provide your middle school-aged daughter access to additional trusted adults (former teachers), and the opportunity to build empathy for younger children during her adolescent years.
  20. Maintain a loving, supportive family environment from infancy throughout childhood and adolescence. More specific tips on how to accomplish this can be found in The New Puberty or other parenting resources.
  21. Wash your hands! Especially before eating.

 4 Additional Tips from Eco-novice


  • Don’t be afraid of natural sources of soy (such as tofu, edamame, and soy milk). Although natural soy contains isoflavones (plant estrogens), they are not true hormone minickers and may actually prevent or delay puberty. Experts theorize that natural soy may help the body be less sensitive to estrogen later in life.
  • Leave your shoes at the door. Experts estimate that 30 to 40 percent of contaminants in our home (including lead, pesticides, fertilizer,and cigarette ash) are brought in from outside. Taking off your shoes keeps a lot of harmful pollutants out of your house, off your floor, off of little kids' hands and out of kids' mouths. Removing your shoes is especially important if your home has wall-to-wall carpet or if you have a baby or toddler that spends a lot of time on the floor and mouthing objects. Find additional tips for avoiding exposure to lead from the CDC here or visit Tamara Rubin's resource page.
  • Avoid inappropriate use of antibiotics. The authors point out that antibiotics are used to fatten up and accelarate the maturation process of livestock. They suggest limiting your exposure to antibiotics in meat because antibiotics may also affect pubertal timing in humans. I couldn't help but think that it is critical to limit your family's own use of antibiotics as a prescription medication as well. Antibiotics are an amazing life-saving medication that our society is squandering through misuse, especially in our administration of them to livestocks, but also in their overuse among people. Never pressure your doctor to give you antibiotics for an illness, and ask if it's safe to "wait and see" rather than immediately take antibiotics for an illness or infection. Click here for additional information on overuse of antibiotics.
  • Protect your family from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Don't allow smoking in your home or vehicle. Insist that smoking regulations be enforced at your place of work. Choose smoke-free restaurants, hotel rooms, and child care centers.

If you are interested in the topic of early puberty in girls, I highly recommend you check out The New Puberty. In addition to greater depth on the topics covered in this post, there are useful chapters that cover additional important topics, such as how to engage in difficult conversations with girls going through early puberty and principles for maintaining emotional closeness with daughters to reduce the risk of early puberty. The books also features an extensive list of recommended reading (for adults and girls) and additional resources.

Are you concerned about early puberty?

What steps have you taken to avoid your family’s exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals?


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photo credit (beginning of post): Jenn Durfey via photopin cc

14 comments:

  1. I was always afraid of the RBGH in American milk, so I bought organic. I love your suggestion of choosing a K-8 school.

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    1. Interestingly, the authors weren't nearly as concerned about rGBH as they were about antibiotics. I prefer my milk without either : )

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  2. I don't have boys so this doesn't affect me directly but I think this should scare the heck out of all of us! I love these suggestions and am sharing this. My brother-in-law doesn't not worry about most of this stuff but, like anexactinglife.com, he pays attention to the milk for his daughter. I remember him saying "No wonder she is growing up too fast. With all the hormones in the milk."

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  3. Thank you for sharing this important information. I think the same holds true for boys-right? I'm so grateful that you shared so many ways to help prevent early puberty. This book is on my short 'must read' list. Thank you.

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    1. This is what the authors have to say about boys: "It's beyond the scope of this book to cover the pubertal process in boys today...Although some data suggest that they too are starting sooner today, the jury is still out...Although we won't address boys specifically in this book, much of the advice we provide--how to encourage healthy habits and build emotional closeness, for example--applies to them as well." I think it goes without saying that most parents aren't interested in their boys being exposed to hormone disruptors (whether they mimic estrogen or something else) either.

      I added that to the main text of the post above as well. Thank you for the question - I should have clarified that earlier!

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  4. This is so important and you've got such a great roundup of tips here! I'm glad you mentioned that natural soy is OK - I was a bit unclear on that.

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    1. Yes, I think a lot of people wonder. The authors did say to seek natural (not manufactured -- like protein powder) soy. What the authors said in this book (natural soy can be protective) echos what I've heard from other experts as well. After all, Asians are one of the ethnic groups least affected by early puberty. That's probably due to other factors as well, but at least their soy intake isn't hurting them!

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  5. Thanks for this great list of suggestions. Early onset of puberty in girls is concerning to me as well.

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  6. It is truly scary that you even have to have #1 (eat less plastic) on a list.

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  7. Such an important post! All of your suggestions are so great and positive reinforcement for my efforts raising my family. My sister-in-law got her period when she was nine and says she feels like her childhood got robbed -- so sad!

    I don't have daughters, but since I have two sons, I follow boys' issues closely. I just finished listening to a book called Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax (highly recommend it) . In his book, one of the five factors actually has to do with the effects plastics and other toxins on the biochemistry of boys. He goes into depth on the subject -- it's fascinating (and frightening) the impact plastics and toxin have boys, both in terms of physical and mental health and development.

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    1. Thank you for sharing that title, Heather! I have a boy as well and will definitely check it out. We are definitely messing with boys' biochemistry as well with all these toxic chemicals/ hormone disruptors, but perhaps in different ways. Interesting the idea that it would affect motivation, b/c I know testosterone is tied to motivation. You have to wonder what the effect of all this estrogen mimicry is on boys.

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  8. It really scares me to see how so many young girls look like women today. Glad you wrote such a through article to guide us.

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  9. How can you not mention the hormonal birth control & hormone replacement therapy that is excreted into our water supply in massive amounts and is known to cause spontaneous sex changes in fish from male to female?

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