After recently spending four days in Cleveland at a bioethics conference I came away with several new, and renewed, perspectives on women’s health issues. The first that comes to mind is something that my roommate, another bioethics graduate student, and I discussed. That is early menarche in females.
Now, a little personal background: I was one of the last girls my age at school to begin menstruating. I was 11 years and 10.5 months old. Virtually all of my friends started menstruating at 10 years of age, some at 9, and a few at 11. I really can only think of one friend who began menstruating after me (12 years old). To men or other folks reading who wonder: yes, many women really do talk to each other about such things.
Scientists have not conducted any truly conclusive or in-depth studies to determine why women are experiencing puberty (not only menstruation) earlier and earlier. There are several theories, the most supported being that modern food supplies are riddled with steroid hormones. Most research that has been done along these lines ignores the effects of hormone-filled foods on early onset puberty. Instead, the research has focused on the effects of these foods on the incidence of cancer: breast and prostate especially.
A scientist at Harvard has conducted some rather interesting research in this area. She found that the amounts of hormones in Mongolian milk are tiny compared to those found in Japan. Mongolians utilize a more traditional mode of milking cows: milking them only when they are not pregnant or at least only during the early months of pregnancy, which is about five months of the year. In more developed nations, cows are milked around the calendar and encouraged to bear as many calves as possible, thus increasing the amount of estrogen found in dairy products 33-fold. It is fairly well established that the greater one’s exposure to estrogen (and other hormones) the higher one’s risk becomes of developing cancer. That can be the topic of another post another day.
Another source of such extraneous steroid hormones in our diets comes from our meat supply. It is illegal in the United States to inject poultry and hogs with hormones. Beef and lamb, however, are treated with hormones. (Poultry is commonly treated with antibiotics but this rarely poses a threat to gynecological health.) Scientists say, however, that because the hormones in our meat supply are often artificially derived (such as zeranol, trenbolone acetate, and melengestrol acetate) they do not wreak as much havoc on the human body as the natural hormones produced in cow’s milk.
So, is milk really that good for you? I lean towards not as good. However, I will still be eating my bowl of cereal every morning with a heaping serving of 2% milk. Oh, incidentally, the above-mentioned Harvard scientist found that skim milk has much lower amounts of hormones similar to the milk in Mongolia. In any event, this topic definitely warrants deeper investigation and my unprofessional opinion is that parents out not allow their children, particularly daughters, to drink milk unless it is skim until after menarche. Questions? Comments? Let ‘er rip!