Are hormones in our food causing kids to become to become sexually mature faster?

As parents, we enjoy observing the growth and development of our children. One such, frequently challenging, developmental milestone is puberty—that rite of passage from children to adulthood. Statistics support children are entering puberty at earlier ages. Since the 1990’s, medical journals report increasing numbers of children (both girls and boys =) with abnormally early puberty.

  • 1/3 of American boys are starting puberty at an average age of 9 to 10 years old (up to 2 years earlier than decades ago).

  • American girls (especially African American girls) are entering puberty at least 1 year earlier than previously observed. The physical changes of puberty are occurring in girls as young as 8 years old. As of 2010, twice as many girls were experiencing early puberty compared to a decade ago. When girls younger than 6 or 7 years old show puberty development, this is considered “precocious puberty” and deserves a medical evaluation.

  • The time interval to reach full sexual maturity varies from 2.5 years to 6 years. Just because a child starts puberty sooner, does not necessarily mean he or she will complete it sooner!

What is causing these changes?

While the reasons for these changes are unclear, the trend in earlier puberty development seems to correlate with:

  • Soy formula in infants: Since isoflavones in soy are phytoestrogens (act like estrogen from plants), concern has been raised on possible effect on infants— especially after studies on laboratory animals show adverse effects on development. A study published in Pediatric Perinatal Epidemiology in 2012 studied 2920 white girls (no twins or preemies) and found those children fed soy formula had a 25% increased risk of early menarche (first menstruation). They concluded the soy may have a mild endocrine disrupting effect. In 2004, a small study (only 48 children) was published where soy formula for 6 months had no changes on bone metabolism or precocious puberty. A 2008 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report states there are few indications for the use of soy protein-based formula in place of cow’s milk-based formula in infants. According to the AAP, the only real indications for soy formula use are for infants with congenital galactosemia (a very rare genetic disorder), for use by families who are strict vegans, or infants who are truly lactose intolerant.

  • Diet: Our body is fueled by what we eat, and what we eat has changed over the years. This includes more convenience foods and ready-made products. According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) no steroid hormones are approved for growth purposes in dairy cattle, veal calves, pigs or poultry. However, since the 1950’s, the FDA has allowed synthetic and naturally occurring steroid hormones in our food including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. While the FDA feels these slight amounts of added hormones creates minimal risk (compared to the naturally occurring hormones already within the animals) and safety testing has been performed, some scientists argue that no lowest level of hormones has been established as being “safe” as young children tend to be extremely sensitive to even very low levels of estrogen.

  • Obesity: Estrogens (female hormone) are made and stored in fat tissue, thus exposing overweight children to these hormones. Physical inactivity may lead to decreased melatonin that triggers pubertal development.

  • Xenoestrogens: Refers to chemicals that “act like” or mimic estrogen. There is concern that parabens found in soaps, shampoos, cosmetics and cleaning products, as well as pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls, can be found in breast tissue and even breast milk because of increased exposure to those chemicals.

What can we do?

  • Use soy based infant formula according to AAP recommendations.

  • Strive for a healthy and nutritious diet. If possible, buy organic to avoid synthetic pesticides.

  • Maintain an appropriate weight including exercise.

  • Avoid processed and high caloric foods.

  • If precocious puberty is diagnosed, a full medical examination should be undertaken by a knowledgeable and trained pediatric specialist.

  • While early puberty development is becoming more common, it doesn’t necessarily translate into being healthier as this creates a gap between a child’s sexual maturity and their emotional and mental maturity.

Remember: “We are what we eat (and drink).” Choose wisely!

At Family Allergy Asthma & Sinus Care, we think about healthy living even beyond allergies and asthma.