Childhood Obesity and the Reproductive System

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When the obesity epidemic was first gaining ground, many professionals found good cause to worry about the future. Researchers accumulated information about how obesity in childhood and adolescence can set off a chain of consequences that will go on to impact adult lives.

As time went by, it became increasingly clear that the future is not the only segment of time that merits concern. Obesity affects kids in the here and now, and there is more to it than name-calling or being unable to fit into clothes or school desks. Many problems fall into what Childhood Obesity News has called the “instant karma” category.

Numerous body systems are affected, and the damage is not always reversible. We’re talking about bonesearsbrainskidneys — in fact it is difficult to name an organ or system that escapes being negatively affected by obesity in the early years. All these problems are cause for great concern, and it would be difficult to rank them according to awfulness. But one has the potential to affect all of humanity in a truly unprecedented way — by contributing to the population explosion on an already overburdened planet.

A startling development

It has become obvious that, especially in girls, puberty begins earlier these days, and unfolds more quickly than in the past. It is fairly clear that child obesity sets off changes in the body’s metabolism that can, in the words of Oregon State University’s Dr. Patrick Chappell, “profoundly affect reproductive capacity.”

How profoundly? That word has to do with depth, and things going on beneath the surface, which is indeed the case. According to ScienceDaily:

Molecular mechanisms have only started to be uncovered in the past decade, the report said, and the triggers that control pubertal development are still widely debated… One theory is an impact on kisspeptin, a recently characterized neurohormone necessary for reproduction. Normal secretions of this hormone may be disrupted by endocrine signals from fat that serve to communicate to the brain.

Whatever the root cause, the mysterious paradoxical effects of youthful obesity can disrupt the timing of puberty, paving the way to pregnancies and births, and can also “lead to a diminished ability to reproduce.” With obesity, the onset of puberty only adjusts in one way, toward the premature end of the spectrum. Early maturation can be a disaster, contributing to the epidemic of “kids having kids” in a world where it is increasingly difficult to support even oneself.

The early maturation caused by obesity results in greater obesity risk, making it a self-generating and self-sustaining problem. Early puberty is also associated with “hypertension and several cancers — including breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer.” And there is no need to wait around for long-term effects. “Instant karma” shows up more and more frequently and in diverse ways:

Early onset puberty has also been associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety in girls, studies have found, as well as increased delinquent behavior, smoking and early sexual experiences in both girls and boys.

Various studies have shown that obese teens may be depressed, and may engage in norm-breaking behaviors. In the summer of 2015 a University of Michigan study of around 900 young women suggested something else to worry about. Obese teens who are sexually active are less likely than their normal-weight counterparts to use birth control.

The 18- and 19-year-old subjects of standard weight reported using contraception 78% of the time, compared to 68% in the obese group. Furthermore, overweight and obese teens tend tend to use less reliable methods, according to lead author Dr. Tammy Chang.

One reason for this cavalier attitude toward birth control is suspected to be lower self-esteem. Girls who already are, or feel, fat have heard that birth control pills cause weight gain, which they want no part of. Feeling less confidence, they may be unable to resist demands for unprotected intercourse. Adolescents of either sex, if obese, might fear ridicule when purchasing contraceptives, and decide to go without.

(To be continued…)

Source: “Childhood Obesity May Affect Timing of Puberty, Create Problems,” ScienceDaily.com, 07/31/12
Source: “Obese teens less likely to use birth control,” CBSNews.com, 07/01/15
Photo credit: Sean MacEntee via Visualhuntcom/ CC BY

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