What is Puberty?
In both Western and Chinese medicine, puberty is a time of rapid growth. It is the time when a young person’s sexual and reproductive organs mature and they are capable of reproducing. In Western medicine, puberty begins when the brain is cued to produce a substance called gonadotropin releasing hormone or GnRH. This activates the pituitary gland in the brain, which signals the ovaries to produce estrogen, one of the key hormones required for puberty to begin. Physical changes include growing taller, increasing body weight, breast development, hair growth and the beginning of menache or menstruation. According to Chinese medicine, at age seven, a girl’s qi (pronounced chee) begins to thrive. By age 14, the qi is strong and robust, thereby allowing the girl to transform into a woman at the onset of the heavenly waters. The arrival of the heavenly waters depends upon the proper balanced functioning of a young girl’s organ systems and the smooth relaxed flow of qi and blood throughout the body.
What is Precocious Puberty?
The age at which our young girls are reaching puberty has dropped dramatically over the last 100 years. Where, in the past, it was common for girls to enter puberty around 14 years of age, we are now seeing girls entering puberty before the age of 12 and some even earlier than that. The appearance of secondary sex characteristics before the age of eight years old is know as precocious puberty. There are numerous theories as to why this precocious puberty is occurring, but no one factor stands out alone. Instead, it appears to be a multitude of factors, each playing their part in a concert of sorts. These factors are:
1 – Environmental toxins
2 – Obesity
3 – Stress.
In Chinese medicine, sexual development is related to something called the “life gate fire”. This fire is considered the basis of life, and thereby the basis of sexual development and reproductive functions. Chinese Medicine identifies three syndromes that can cause this fire to be ignited prematurely, resulting in precocious puberty. These include:
1 – Deficiency of Liver and Kidney yin
2 – Liver qi stagnation
3 – Damp Heat Accumulation
Environmental Toxins and Deficiency of Liver and Kidney yin.
Environmental Toxins are everywhere. Since WWII, children are at risk of exposure to more than 85,000 synthetic chemical compounds.
These chemical compounds have been found to contain ‘endocrine disruptors” which have been linked to the development of precocious puberty. Over 100 pesticide compounds have been identified as endocrine disruptors and human consumption of them has nearly quadurapled in the last 40 years.
Endocrine disruptors are thought to contribute to the acceleration of onset of puberty in females. The structural similarity of endocrine disruptors with estrogen allow them to mimic natural hormones and act as though they were the key to the receptor “locks” and trick the cells into thinking that they are hormones. They bind and activate estrogen receptors and show a similar response even in the absence of estrogen. They can also block or modulate the synthesis, release, transportation, metabolism, and elimination of normal hormones. This can all lead to precocious puberty.
From the Chinese Medicine perspective, a child’s body is considered purely yang, and children have a tender and delicate yin-yang balance because their bodies are not yet fully developed. During this time of rapid growth and development, yang qi dominates, creating a state of relative yin deficiency. This yin deficiency in children, can be exacerbated by environmental toxins which can cause the fire to stir, leading premature puberty to begin.
These environmental toxins are used in everyday products, equipment used in the home or office, in our water, our food and in the air we breathe. They can transfer from mother to fetus, via placenta or to baby via breast milk. They are found in cosmetics and personal care products, cleaning products, baby and children’s toys, food storage containers, furniture, carpets, computers and phones and the fire retardant materials used in pajamas and school uniforms. The exposure to certain chemical substances in the environment, some of them naturally occurring, others synthetic has raised concerns that early human exposure, even low doses could have adverse effects on health and development in childhood.
Most of these substances often accumulate in fat tissue, which leads us to the next potential cause.
Obesity and Damp Heat Accumulation
Numerous studies suggest that being overweight is associated with early puberty in girls. This is because fat cells not only store toxic chemicals, but they also manufacture the hormone estrogen. This additional source of estrogen found in excess body fat results in earlier breast development in young girls. Children with a higher fat content also have elevated levels of leptin, which can cause the brain to release further hormones essential for puberty. This also causes the development of secondary sexual characteristics including wider hips and increase fat deposits around the thighs and buttocks making the process even faster.
Chinese Medicine also identifies the relationship between obesity and the early stirring of the “life gate fire”. Damp heat accumulation is related to poor diet which often leads to obesity. The spleen and stomach are responsible for transforming and transporting the food and fluids we consume, and they can easily be damaged by processed foods, sugary drinks, artificial flavors and additives. These foods overwhelm the digestive system, leading to food stagnation. This food can sit undigested in the digestive system, generating heat and dampness known collectively as damp heat. This damp heat stirs the “life gate fire”, contributing to early puberty.
Stress and Liver Qi Stagnation
Early puberty can also be triggered in girls who experience psychological stress as a result of growing up in households with high levels of family stress, violence and conflict. This social stress and deprivation (i.e. parental stress, contentious divorce, adoption and sexual abuse) are also well known to negatively affect the physical health in children.
Psychological and emotional stress can also cause the Liver qi to stagnate. The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi around the body. When this does not occur due to undue stress placed on a girl, it caused the liver to become stagnated. Once stagnated, it can generate heat and fire, stirring the “life gate fire”, leading to early puberty.
What are the consequences?
Early puberty has more consequences than just the physical, it can impact the emotional wellbeing and increase the potential for further psychological stress on our young girls. Girls may appear older than they are and may be subjected to sexual innuendos or teasing. This can occur well before the girls are emotionally or physiologically ready to deal with such issues.
Another consequence is that early puberty means early estrogen production. Estrogen represses growth by closing epiphyses in puberty. This means that girls are starting puberty and getting their periods well before their pubescent growth spurt at around 12-14 years. This early epiphyseal maturation can lead to compromised final height.
What can we do?
- Ensure children maintain a healthy weight, eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Breastfeed your babies, if possible.
- Maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy.
- Engage in regular physical activity.
- Provide infants and children natural wooden toys.
- Use glass bottles for feeding your infants and stainless steel water bottles for your children.
- Avoid plastic containers, especially those containing BPA.
- Never heat food in plastic, as the heat causes toxic compounds to leach out of the plastic and enter your food.
- Avoid pesticide and herbicide use around the home.
- Avoid or reduce the amount of prepackaged processed food and food packaged in tins.
- Avoid sugary drinks and sweets.
- Avoid products that contain fragrance. This includes many natural as well as synthetic scents.
- Provide healthy role models for our children by maintaining a healthy body weight yourself and making good food choices.
- Providing a nurturing emotional environment at home.
- Provide support for children who have experienced abuse or a high stress environment.
- Ensure appropriate sun exposure to ensure adequate levels of vitamin D.
- Talk to your acupuncturist or Chinese Herbal Medicine Doctor about how they can help.
Our young girls are a precious gift. Chinese medicine reminds us that developing and maintaining a balanced qi is important for their healthy transition to womanhood. Girls are uniquely vulnerable to toxic chemicals in the environment, are easily affected by stress, and the rise in childhood obesity is having a significant impact on their health and wellbeing. Although the exact reason for this rise in precocious puberty is not yet known, it is clear that there are many potential avenues for endocrine disruptors to affect timing of puberty in girls. We need to use the knowledge and lessons of Chinese medicine to maintain balance and help keep little girls just that until they are ready to become women.
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What is in our environment that effects puberty?
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