The female athlete triad isn’t one condition but a trio of interrelated health problems that vary in severity. Common in teenage and adult female athletes, these issues include:
- Energy deficiency, with or without disordered eating
- Menstrual disturbances and amenorrhea (abnormal absence of menstruation)
- Bone loss and osteoporosis
The above conditions may occur as a result of restricted eating, excessive dieting, and prolonged exercise, among other factors. Left untreated, female athlete triad can result in a number of serious problems, including cardiovascular issues, mental health disorders, and infertility. For this reason, parents, coaches, and other authority figures should stay alert for the signs of female athlete triad and ensure young athletes get the help they need to be healthy.
Energy Deficiency and Disordered Eating
Energy deficiency is the main symptom in the female athlete triad. Resulting from an imbalance between the amount of energy an athlete is consuming and the amount she’s using, energy deficiency is linked to disordered eating. This restriction in food can be deliberate, as teen athletes may be consciously controlling weight in order to compete in gymnastics, figure skating, or another sport. On the other hand, some athletes simply fail to eat enough to replenish what they’re burning during workouts. In the long run, patients with this condition may suffer low body weight, anorexia, bulimia, and other health problems.
Menstrual Disturbances and Amenorrhea
Along with disordered eating and energy problems, female athlete triad patients experience serious menstrual problems. While some women have irregular menstrual cycles, others suffer from a condition called amenorrhea, in which they have no period for three months or longer. These menstrual disturbances occur when hormone levels decrease because women aren’t consuming enough calories. In the long run, this condition can lead to infertility, vaginal atrophy, and osteoporosis, the third part of the triad.
Bone Loss and Osteoporosis
Women with female athlete triad may suffer from low bone mass, which causes their bones to become weaker than normal. Over time, these women may develop osteoporosis, which leads to an increased risk of fractures. According to an article published in the journal The Physician and Sports Medicine, osteoporosis is the top cause of morbidity and mortality among elderly people. Moreover, 40% of women will suffer an osteoporotic fracture over the course of their lives.
Women who engage in high levels of athletic activity before age 30 and suffer from nutritional deficiencies may be more likely to develop early-onset osteoporosis. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, individuals with a history of eating disorders, smoking, and drinking alcohol may also be at a higher risk for this condition.
Symptoms of Female Athlete Triad
The following are signs and symptoms of the female athlete triad:
- Weight loss
- Bone loss
- Irregular or missed periods
- Stress or osteoporotic fractures
- Disordered eating, including binging, skipping meals, and anorexia
- Working out past the point of exhaustion
If you or someone you love is suffering from the above symptoms, consider seeking medical attention for female athlete triad.
What Causes Female Athlete Triad?
The conditions comprising the female athlete triad result from a combination of extreme exercising and disordered eating. While some women inadvertently train too intensely and fail to consume sufficient calories to make up for what’s been lost, others deliberately refrain from eating in order to meet exacting athletic standards. The following factors increase the odds of a girl or woman suffering from female athlete triad:
- Participating in competitive sports
- Competing in a sport with weight restrictions and requirements
- Having parents or coaches who pressure them to succeed
- Exercising to extremes
- Being obsessed with weight and appearance
- Suffering from depression
- Suffering from an eating disorder
Wondering if someone you love may be in the grips of an eating disorder? Be on the lookout for signs such as making frequent bathroom trips, suffering sensitivity to cold, having brittle nails, and using laxatives.
Female Athlete Triad Treatment
The female athlete triad is a serious condition. Upon diagnosing female athlete triad, doctors usually advise patients to make dietary changes to improve their health. In some cases, a nutritionist will work with the patient to create a new eating plan that provides sufficient nutrients. You may also have to alter your exercise routine to correct the energy imbalance.
Additionally, female athlete triad patients may need medication to correct menstrual cycle irregularities. Birth control pills can help regulate menstrual cycles and improve both energy and bone health.
Finally, girls and women suffering from female athlete triad should get plenty of rest and consider mental health counseling to reduce stress and boost overall well-being.
Female Athletes and Eating Disorders
Because female athlete triad often develops as a result of disordered eating, it’s important to look at the psychological factors driving these young women. Not only do the fashion and beauty industries encourage women to lose weight and achieve a particular body type, but parents, coaches, and trainers may put undue pressure on young athletes to succeed. These stressors can lead to anorexia, bulimia, and other dangerous habits surrounding food.
According to a study involving Division 1 NCAA athletes, a third of female participants displayed symptoms or attitudes that put them at risk for anorexia. Staying abreast of the symptoms of female athlete triad is the best way to protect these women’s health over the long haul.