Abstract

Earlier puberty, especially in girls, is associated with physical and mental disorders. Prenatal glucocorticoid exposure influences the timing of puberty in animal models, but the human relevance of those findings is unknown. We studied whether voluntary consumption of licorice, which contains glycyrrhizin (a potent inhibitor of placental 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2, the “barrier” to maternal glucocorticoids), by pregnant women was associated with pubertal maturation (height, weight, body mass index for age, difference between current and expected adult height, Tanner staging, score on the Pubertal Development Scale), neuroendocrine function (diurnal salivary cortisol, dexamethasone suppression), cognition (neuropsychological tests), and psychiatric problems (as measured by the Child Behavior Checklist) in their offspring. The children were born in 1998 in Helsinki, Finland, and examined during 2009–2011 (mean age = 12.5 (standard deviation (SD), 0.4) years; n = 378). Girls exposed to high maternal glycyrrhizin consumption (≥500 mg/week) were taller (mean difference (MD) = 0.4 SD, 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.1, 0.8), were heavier (MD = 0.6 SD, 95% CI: 0.2, 1.9), and had higher body mass index for age (MD = 0.6 SD, 95% CI: 0.2, 0.9). They were also 0.5 standard deviations (95% CI: 0.2, 0.8) closer to adult height and reported more advanced pubertal development (P < 0.04). Girls and boys exposed to high maternal glycyrrhizin consumption scored 7 (95% CI: 3.1, 11.2) points lower on tests of intelligence quotient, had poorer memory (P < 0.04), and had 3.3-fold (95% CI: 1.4, 7.7) higher odds of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder problems compared with children whose mothers consumed little to no glycyrrhizin (≤249 mg/week). No differences in cortisol levels were found. Licorice consumption during pregnancy may be associated with harm for the developing offspring.

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