Numbers have all kinds of meaning for different folks, and in Chinese medicine, it’s no different. There are the five elements, the four examinations, and the eight principles of diagnosis. For both men and women there are numeric cycles of growth. As men age, they go through eight year cycles of growth, and women go through growth cycles every seven years.
Today, girls are the subject of this post. At age seven, according to Chinese medical texts, girls have replaced their baby teeth with permanent ones and their hair grows abundantly. At age 14, girls have matured into young women, and their periods begin. At age 21, their essence peaks, and growth is at its utmost, and so on, until age 49 when essence is depleted and menopause occurs.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it used to be, but the girls of today have changed. Twenty or thirty years ago, girls were…girls. However, a new study suggests that the girls of today are going through puberty earlier than those of a couple decades ago—as early as the age of seven or eight. Seriously—there are seven and eight-year-olds growing breasts and having periods.
While no one is exactly sure why this is happening, there are a couple of theories floating around out there. One is that in the United States, girls are fatter in general. The average Body Mass Index for girls (a measure of weight to height, also an indicator of fatness) has steadily increased over the past twenty or thirty years. For puberty to occur, a girl must achieve a certain weight and fat distribution, so an eight-year-old carrying around the weight/fat of a 12-year-old may go through puberty early. Also, small amounts of the hormone estrogen are produced in adipose (fat) tissue, and fat kids tend to have elevated levels of the protein leptin, which can cause their hypothalamus and pituitary glands to release hormones essential to puberty.
In Chinese medicine, over nutrition is actually considered a cause of disease, most notably obesity. Over nutritious foods are those that are jam-packed with calories, fat, or are simply too nutrient dense to be fully absorbed. Those foods are considered to be Yin in nature in that they’re very nourishing. However, that nourishing quality in excess gums up the works and causes a condition called dampness, which is the body’s inability to metabolize fluids properly. A build-up of damp tissue is heavy and moist…pretty much the same thing as fat.
In addition, eating “wrecked foods” is also considered a cause of disease in Chinese medicine. In ancient times, wrecked food was food that had spoiled or was otherwise inedible. Today, foods packed with preservatives, chemicals, artificial sweeteners, manufactured fats, and flavors that come from a lab in New Jersey are all considered wrecked. Most relevant to early puberty are foods that come from animals that have been fed hormones in order to boost their weight, growth, or productivity.
Another theory is that some of the synthetic chemicals in household products and personal care products are considered hormone disruptors. These chemicals are absorbed by the body and mimic certain hormones, most notably estrogen. While women who are being exposed to these chemicals have an increased risk of breast cancer, children’s developing bodies are also vulnerable to their damaging effects, most likely causing unexpected hormonal changes and early puberty.
Within the framework of Chinese medicine, these chemicals are also considered an overabundance of toxins in our lives. To the ancients, toxins came from being bitten by a snake or stung by a poisonous insect. Today, our toxin exposure comes from the synthetic chemicals in household cleaners, shampoo, soaps, and moisturizing lotions that are absorbed into our bodies.
For parents who don’t want their daughters to grow up too soon, there are a few things you can do. A strategy of physical activity and weight control combined with eating clean, healthy foods (preferably organic), and a commitment to chemical-free cleaning and personal products is a good place to start.