Early Alcohol and Tobacco Use May Delay Puberty in Girls

Both alcohol and tobacco use are known to produce several adverse effects, including psychological, physiological, emotional, and physical health hazards. These side effects have been extensively investigated among teenagers and adults, and are acutely apparent in older age, after long-term use, or following binge episodes. Yet alcohol and tobacco’s adverse reactions upon younger adolescents, especially on their physical development, are not fully known. Alcohol use has already been found to impede puberty growth rats, but the same evidence has not been established among humans, particularly young girls.

Researcher Dr. Jennifer Peck from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City and her colleagues investigated the prevalence of developmental risks among prepubescent girls due to alcohol and tobacco use in a cross-sectional study. In previous alcohol-related studies involving rats, alcohol consumption has been found to not only inhibit the growth of puberty-related hormones, but also to delay the onset of puberty by hindering ovarian development and functionality. The researchers sought to determine whether similar alcohol- and nicotine-related problems occurred among developing humans as well. Based on the responses of 3,106 girls between the ages of 11 and 21 from previous interviews, the researchers assessed the relationships between early alcohol and tobacco use and the onset of puberty. The participants were asked to respond regarding their age of first alcohol and tobacco use, age they began regular alcohol or tobacco use, and the age that they first noticed signs of sexual development.

Only 3% of the girls started using alcohol or tobacco at a prepubescent age, but the girls who chose to begin drinking or smoking at an early age were also much more likely to begin puberty at a later age. Both tobacco and alcohol use were found to delay sexual development among these girls; in fact, the girls who chose to engage in early alcohol use had four times the likelihood of having delayed puberty than their non-drinking counterparts. The researchers suggest that this association may be due to alcohol and tobacco’s ability to disrupt endocrine function and therefore affect the timing of sexual development.

It is important to identify such hazardous consequences of early alcohol and tobacco use in order to avoid serious health threats that adolescents can face in later life. In healthy adolescent females, puberty can begin as early as age 7 to 8, but most girls begin to develop sexually between the ages of 9 and 13. In the researchers’ new study, early alcohol or tobacco use among young adolescent females was found to stint puberty growth, which can lead to other more complex conditions such as brittle bones, infertility, increased risk of miscarriage, and psychological distress. Although further research is needed in order to establish the causal effects of early drinking and smoking in female youth, Dr. Peck’s study underlines the importance of early prevention and intervention during this young age in order to circumvent the irreversible effects of alcohol and tobacco use.

The researchers’ new study is currently available online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.