What is the Female Athlete Triad?

The Female Athlete Triad is a combination of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis.  In my opinion, each of these three things are steps that lead to the next problem.  Disordered eating can lead to amenorrhea which can lead to osteoporosis.  When you’re body is in this state, it’s on the edge of breaking down, if it hasn’t already.  Let’s take a look at each of these in detail.

Disordered Eating

Most people think of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa when they think of disordered eating.  While these are very serious forms of disordered eating, just restricting calories can also be considered disordered eating.  Many female athletes focus too closely on how much they eat because they think that staying very thin or dropping a few pounds will improve their athletic performance.  In fact, this is not true.  If you’re not consuming enough calories to sustain the amount of work your body does playing your sport, you are actually going to be more fatigued and perform more poorly. 

There are also those sports such as gymnastics or ballet where body image and staying thin is considered to be very important.  I think these females are at a higher risk for developing the triad.  Although some female athletes may be purposely limiting their calories, I think a lot of other female athletes accidentally develop disordered eating habits simply because they don’t realize they’re not eating enough.

The bottom line here is that if you’re playing sports, you need to be eating enough to replace the amount of energy you’re using to play your sport.  Chances are most female athletes at the high school and college level are not, and that can lead to injury.  If you have questions or are concerned that you may fall into this category, I suggest consulting a sports dietician in your area.

Amenorrhea

Amenorrhea is the medical term for loss of your period.  When you deprive your body of the nutrients it needs by not eating enough food and exercising intensely, it can lead to decreased estrogen levels which can cause your period to become irregular or stop completely.  Estrogen is the hormone responsible for regulating your menstrual cycle.

Having an irregular period can be just as harmful as not having one at all.  Now, I wouldn’t get upset if you miss one period.  But if you miss several periods or start having them more sporadically, I would start to wonder if you fall into this category.  If this hits home for you, it’s time to contact your doctor.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is the term we use for bone loss.  Basically, if you’re exercising hard, not eating enough calories, and have low levels of estrogen, your bones will start to thin and become weaker.  This is why it’s not only important to eat enough for the demands you place on your body playing your sport, but you should also be sure you’re eating foods rich in calcium and vitamin D.

Thinning of the bone like this can lead to stress fractures.  Now, there are many reasons you may develop a stress fracture, and just because you have one doesn’t mean you fit into the Female Athlete Triad.  However, if you have had more than one stress fracture or stress fractures in different places, you may have the triad.  Especially if you also have irregular periods or you know that you are not eating enough.  If you are concerned you have a stress fracture or that you may have the triad, you should consult with a sports medicine physician.

If all or one of these things applies to you, you should consult with your doctor.  This is not something you want to try to fix alone.  If you know somebody that these symptoms might fit, you want to try and get them help.  Talk to someone that can get the ball rolling with getting them the help they need.  Don’t try to approach them on your own.  People with this can get defensive and many times they are in denial.  This is a very serious problem that can be fixed with the right approach and with the right team of medical professionals.

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