The secret to getting the oil is to squeeze the snakes real hard

I generally don’t write too much about pseudo-medical woo that often.  The main reason is that Orac at Respectful Insolence does it so very well, thus there’s no need for me to peddle an inferior version.  But it seems he’ll be at a conference for the next few days, so maybe I’ll try my hand at it.  They are kind of fun to write, after all.

What set me off today was something in this article about the rise in precocious puberty rates.  The article, which appeared in the Times Magazine, is generally excellent and worth reading for anyone interested in the topic.  To summarize the phenomenon briefly, it is becoming increasingly common for girls to show some form of pubertal development at younger and younger ages.  To what degree this is problematic varies from patient to patient, and there is no clear answer as to what is causing it.

One of the prevailing theories is that environmental toxins that mimic the effects of estrogen are to blame, though this is far from a settled question.  Which brings us to this:

One day last year when her daughter, Ainsley, was 9, Tracee Sioux pulled her out of her elementary school in Fort Collins, Colo., and drove her an hour south, to Longmont, in hopes of finding a satisfying reason that Ainsley began growing pubic hair at age 6. Ainsley was the tallest child in her third-grade class. She had a thick, enviable blond-streaked ponytail and big feet, like a puppy’s. The curves of her Levi’s matched her mother’s.


In the back seat, Ainsley wiggled out of her pink parka and looked in her backpack for her Harry Potter book. Over the past three years, Tracee — pretty and well-put-together, wearing a burnt orange blouse that matched her necklace and her bag — had taken Ainsley to see several doctors. They ordered blood tests and bone-age X-rays and turned up nothing unusual. “The doctors always come back with these blank looks on their faces, and then they start redefining what normal is,” Tracee said as we drove down Interstate 25, a ribbon of asphalt that runs close to where the Great Plains bump up against the Rockies. “And I always just sit there thinking, What are you talking about, normal? Who gets pubic hair in first grade?”

Fed up with mainstream physicians, Tracee began pursuing less conventional options. She tried giving Ainsley diindolylmethane, or DIM, a supplement that may or may not help a body balance its hormones. She also started a blog, the Girl Revolution, with a mission to “revolutionize the way we think about, treat and raise girls,” and the accompanying T.G.R. Body line of sunscreens and lotions marketed to tweens and described by Tracee as “natural, organic, craptastic-free products” containing “no estrogens, phytoestrogens, endocrine disrupters.”

None of this stopped Ainsley’s body from maturing ahead of its time. That afternoon, Tracee and Ainsley visited the office of Jared Allomong, an applied kinesiologist. Applied kinesiology is a “healing art” sort of like chiropractic. Practitioners test muscle strength in order to diagnose health problems; it’s a refuge for those skeptical and weary of mainstream medicine.

I like that “healing art” and “refuge.”  They sound much nicer than the sadly more accurate words “chicanery” and “scam.”  But sometimes the truth hurts.  “Kinesiologists” claim to diagnose sensitivities to certain substances by having the mark (I refuse to call them “patients”) hold a vial of the offending substance, then yanking on the other arm.  If the person seems comparatively weak, they are deemed to be sensitive to the substance.  It is pure, unadulterated malarkey.  It makes reiki look like radiation oncology.

“So, what brings you here today?” Allomong asked mother and daughter. Tracee stroked Ainsley’s arm and said, wistfully, “Precocious puberty.”

Allomong nodded. “What are the symptoms?”


“Have you seen Western doctors for this?” Allomong asked.

Tracee laughed. “Yes, many,” she said. “None suggested any course of action. They left us hanging.” She repeated for Allomong what she told me in the car: “They seem to have changed the definition of ‘normal.’ ”

For many parents of early-developing girls, “normal” is a crazy-making word, especially when uttered by a doctor; it implies that the patient, or patient’s mother, should quit being neurotic and accept that not much can be done. Allomong listened intently. He nodded and took notes, asking Tracee detailed questions about her birth-control history and validating her worst fears by mentioning the “extremely high levels” of estrogen-mimicking chemicals in the food and water supply. After about 20 minutes he asked Ainsley to lie on a table. There he performed a lengthy physical exam that involved testing the strength in Ainsley’s arms and legs while she held small glass vials filled with compounds like cortisol, estrogen and sugar. (Kinesiologists believe that weak muscles indicate illness, and that a patient’s muscles will test as weaker when he or she is holding a substance that contributes to health problems.)

Finally, he asked Ainsley to sit up. “It doesn’t test like it’s her own estrogens,” Allomong reported to Tracee, meaning he didn’t think Ainsley’s ovaries were producing too many hormones on their own. “I think it’s xeno-estrogens, from the environment,” he explained. “And I think it’s stress and insulin and sugar.”

“You can’t be more specific?” Tracee asked, pleading. “Like tell me what crap in my house I can get rid of?” Allomong shook his head. [emphasis added]

And leprechauns!  Don’t forget the leprechauns, Mr. Allomong!  Shouldn’t she also hold a vial full of fairy dust and rainbows, just to be sure?  It would be a shame to miss something.

Look, I understand a mother’s frustration.  (My sympathy is a little bit dimmed for this woman, given that she’s apparently formed her own company that will attempt to profit from other parents’ anxieties, but I’ll leave that aside.)  I understand that it sucks when your child has a problem, and after an extensive work-up no answer surfaces.  I understand that the words “this may just be your child’s ‘normal'” can be profoundly unsatisfying.  I really do understand that, and I want to assure everyone that it sucks on our end, too.  Medical providers don’t like to leave patients without clear answers.

But sometimes the only honest thing to say is that there is no clear answer.  It does not serve any good purpose to fill in that gap with mythology.  If I told Ms. Sioux that Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, was triggering precocious puberty because she wanted more virgins for her temples, nobody would take me seriously.  Well, I promise you that that answer and Mr. Allomong’s have exactly the same scientific validity.  He delivers his answer surrounded by an aura of ersatz legitimacy that he has appropriated from the world of real medicine, and his rituals (which he calls an “exam”) presumably don’t involve kindling a sacred fire.  But it’s all mythology just the same.

Sometimes no answer is the only answer.  It’s awful, and medical providers need to acknowledge how hard it can be for parents or patients when we can’t give them a solid answer for their questions.  “We don’t know” must be delivered with humility, compassion and patience.  But sometimes “we don’t know” is the truth, and the truth is better than a lie.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. It’s amazing how many different versions of “invisible X’s in the atmosphere are poisoning us all” there have been throughout history, modified for current fads and technology. This sounds particularly doofy.

    My husband and I often say to each other, thank God we have relatively little hope for our disabled kid. I mean, we can definitely take steps to improve his lot in life, but they are pretty non-drastic and amount to giving him experiences, talking to him, taking him to art museums, making sure he practices walking, etc. We have an etiology and a tentative mechanism, and there’s only so much we can do to change that. What if our kid had autism? Would we go on some chelating binge or something?

    Some parents of kids with my kid’s syndrome to go for crazy cures, but they are few and far between.

    BTW, I love doctors who tell me when they don’t know.

    • Not really. You need to look at the intersexed fish, then try telling me it’s doofy.

      That said, a medical doctor could give plenty of reasonable advice for how to “fix” early-normal puberty (menarche at 9 is hardly insane).
      1) Stop feeding girls so much fruit (particularly tropical fruit). There’s a reason south america has the earliest puberty rates.
      2) Move to a place with lower levels of estrogen contamination in everything.
      3) Get the girl to lose some weight (this is more a “fix it after the fact” but… meh).

      • Also, the medicine man needs silver to stop Night Wolf eating the Moon Virgin.

    • It’s amazing how many different versions of “invisible X’s in the atmosphere are poisoning us all” there have been throughout history, modified for current fads and technology. This sounds particularly doofy.

      True, but there’s bacteria and viri, too. So not ALL “invisible X’s in the atmosphere poisoning us all” are doofy. The trick is seperating the confirmed and plausible from the busted (thank you, Mythbusters!).

  2. On the other hand, given the placebo effect, the best thing for some people might be to hear that your problems are happening because your magic energy is imbalanced and you need to do yoga to refocus your chi.

    • I take your point, DD. (Mirabile dictu.) If Ms. Sioux wanted to go to a shaman who called his services “magic” and made no gestures toward medical legitimacy, I’d find her decision silly but it wouldn’t raise my hackles in the way that woo does. Woo takes the trappings of medical care and pretends to share its legitimacy, which is fraudulent on a totally different level.

  3. “I think it’s xeno-estrogens, from the environment,” he explained. “And I think it’s stress and insulin and sugar.”

    Here’s your answer as you wrote it. It is an epidemic quickly growing problem. Once those children start having periods they stop growing. So how tall is a first grader? It is the GMO’s in our foods, the phalates and endocrine disrupters in plasric, food wrapper, microwave containers, heat them up and your food is permeated with plastic. Lotions, shampoos, perfumes, body products, foods, pesticides, they all contribute to endocrine disruption. Add little bits all day long everyday and it begans to accumulate. Cheaper foods, GMO foods and fast foods are the worst. One accepted theory is that a home without a father somehow stresses a child into puberty. Okay. That one really makes sense. Have we ever seen that before? Don;t think so. Seen lots of single parent mostly women homes but new pathology is just now showing up.Started about the mid 1990’s about the time GMO’s really hit our mainstream food supply. The most likely factor is that a man in the home is another, usually bigger income and affords children better quality food. The thinkig on this issue is amazing. It’s pretty simple. Arapahoe County in colorado just showed a 60% spike in autism is 2 years! What the heck could be causing that? Food, we are what we eat. mcp

  4. My niece started developing pubic hair and breasts at age 8, and her parents went through much of the same thing. They’re just a bit more cynical about woo-woo “medicine” (and disinclined to see practitioners not covered by their insurance). As it happened, she just turned twenty-one, and is physically and emotionally normal, but at the time, it seemed pretty dire: she was being noticed, in a sexual way, by men in stores and at church while she was still playing with Barbie dolls.

    It is my understanding that the age of menarche has been retreating for the last century or so, from sixteen, at the turn of the 20th century, to the current average age of twelve or thirteen. At the time that the topic was interesting to me, the going mainstream theory was that it was driven by the increasing fatness of American girls (although my niece was pretty slight). I don’t know if the pseudo-estrogen theory has much weight, but I would certainly like to understand what is causing the change, and whether it has any substantial negative effects on a girl’s life.

    • As do I. There is a great deal of research that is trying to find an answer to the question. (If you’ve not read the linked article, it really is very good.) But right now we haven’t got one that’s satisfactory, and making crap up isn’t helpful.

    • Age of menarche is well-documented in wikipedia. It’s not so straightforward as 16-12, but highly place-dependent before the industrial revolution, and continues to be so afterwards.

      Those men looking at her were perverts/pedophiles.

      Fatness does play a role, of course — if you don’t get enough nutrition, you don’t get menarche. Girls all look a little weird during their growth spurt, so even if someone did have enough nutrition, it doesn’t necessarily mean they look chubby.

  5. Even a day later I still have nothing to add to this delicious article. But the title still makes me giggle.

  6. You sure are pompous for a guy who plagiarized this article. This is way more than legal fair use.

  7. Just out of curiousity — could it be nurtritional? As in “we have lots and lots of food”? The human body grows at it’s own rate, but I’d imagine having access to what amounts to “however many calories and trace elements you can possibly want” might have children developing, you know, at the maximum rate.

    Changing diets, more access to high-energy fats and such — I’m not sure I’d jump straight to enviromental toxins when the modern American child is like an engine that’s historically been trying to sputter by on just enough in the tank, and now is hooked up to a hose that’ll feed it all the top-notch gasoline it can possibly burn.

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