Ingesting Unnatural Stuff

When your kids are allergic to nearly everything on the supermarket shelves, it really does change the way you think about the myriad things we put into our bodies. My diet still isn’t as “natural” as it ought to be (I confess to grabbing McDonald’s hamburgers and Fritos corn chips in a pinch), but since switching to raw milk at breakfast, and lunches of nutrient-dense soups made from our own livestock, my health has improved markedly. I hate to think of all that McDonald’s food I put away as a teenager; I loved the stuff, but can’t help thinking about how it impacted my growing and developing body. I guess I’m just glad that our kids have been enjoying such an incredibly wholesome diet from their earliest ages.

Confirming my suspicions about disparate impact of various things on younger people, last night NPR had an excellent story about the ways in which steroids are particularly damaging to teenagers. As Dr. Michael Miletic explains, compared to a thirty year old professional athlete taking steroids, for teenagers “[T]here is a significant difference, because of the continuing development both physically, developmentally, emotionally, and neurologically in adolescents. Things are still rapidly changing within an adolescent’s brain and body; therefore when you introduce something to that body which is changing in such a rapid way, you’re going to have unpredictable effects on all those systems.”

My first thought: why do schools crack down so hard on student athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs…but remain silent about — and in some cases actually encourage — adolescent girls who employ hormone-based contraceptive pills and patches? I’m not a physician, but it seems logical that nearly everything Dr. Miletic says above can be applied as readily to contraceptive pills as to anabolic steroids. It’s one thing for a thirty-year old woman to take these things; it’s quite another for a fifteen year old girl, whose system is still maturing, to be manipulating her body with synthetic hormones. And if you read the medical literature closely enough, you will find plenty of examples of the side effects that hormone-based contraception can cause. As one physician told me:

We had one girl who had a condition called pseudotumor cerebri. This can arise as a consequence of using OCPs [Oral Contraceptive Pills] to treat painful or irregular menstruation in adolescent and teenaged girls. It’s not a cancerous tumor but they are these little masses that lead to very difficult to manage headaches. Also I remember a 22 year old girl we had who had a stroke. She was a smoker and even though she hadn’t used OCPs in 2 years, the only conclusion they could come to was small clots caused by the years of hormone use.

I find it particularly interesting that when it comes to steroid use by high school athletes, no one is saying “Well, the kids are going to do it anyway. We should let them take the steroids, but under a doctor’s supervision, so they can do it as safely as possible.” No, rather than even tacitly condoning unhealthy behavior, we assume that the kids will respond rationally to the mix of incentives and penalties placed before them. Why, then, do we assume these same kids are such uncontrollable little animals that it’s acceptable to manipulate their still-developing endocrine systems with synthetic hormones…as long as it’s in the name of “safe sex”?

I’m all for zero tolerance toward anabolic steroid use; kids engaging in this kind of dangerous and self-destructive behavior ought to be punished as severely as possible. But in our rush to clean up student athletes, let’s not overlook the significantly more widespread other uses and abuses of synthetic hormones being undertaken by high school kids with still-developing bodies.

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