The female athlete triad isn’t a new triathlon that tests athletic toughness or three-piece designer workout wear. It’s a very real disorder affecting a large population of young female athletes, and the fallout can have a devastating and lifelong impact.
Female Athlete Triad Explained
The short answer is an eating disorder that leads to amenorrhea or the absence of a menstrual cycle, and subsequently a weakening of the skeletal system.
“Female athlete” comes from the fact that it is most often seen in women who are athletic competitors in sports where being lean is an advantage such as running, swimming, gymnastics and figure skating. Dancers may also suffer from this disorder.
And it isn’t only female competitive athletes who suffer. Amateur athletes and those who, for whatever reason, take “calories-in/calories-out” to the extreme, also carry the potential for these devastating effects.
How Does the Female Athlete Triad Start?
The disorder begins with calorie restriction, and is often associated with female athletes who associate lower body weight with a competitive edge.
The combination of restricted caloric intake and high octane workouts disrupts the menstrual cycle. Next, with the absence of necessary minerals for bone strength, the body begins breaking down bone mass which leads to brittle bones–a dangerous condition for athletes already prone to injury.
The “Triad” of Female Athlete Triad
The “triad” part of the syndrome is identified by the three related conditions previously mentioned that are the result of excessive training and restricted nutrition. Here is a slightly more in-depth explanation of how these conditions interrelate:
- Disordered Eating is the extreme restriction of calories and excessive exercise that prevents the body from getting enough nutrition. This leads to the next two markers of the female athlete triad.
- Menstrual Dysfunction caused by a combination of low nutrition and poor caloric intake, stress to the body brought on by extreme exercise, and significantly low body fat causes hormonal changes that may result in irregular periods (as low as just a few months a year) and even cause your periods to stop altogether. Fertility issues like irregular, or no ovulation, can result.
- Low Bone Mineral Density occurs when the lack of, or disruption to, the menstrual cycle halts the body’s ability to build bone mass. This weakens the skeletal system and results in brittle bones that fracture and break easily and, at its most extreme, result in osteoporosis.
Signs and Symptoms of The Female Athlete Triad
Outsiders looking in, and even the female athletes, may see the constant training and pushing oneself, combined with the appearance of “healthy” eating, as a dedication to improved athletic performance and healthy lifestyle. But what isn’t seen is the fact that the “healthy lifestyle” has been taken to an extreme. Here are the top signs and symptoms of female athlete triad:
- Low energy and fatigue
- Weight loss
- Irregular periods or periods stop altogether
- Stress fractures, broken bones
- Frequent fasting or strict limitation of food intake
- Extreme workouts
- Binge eating
- Self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse
The threat to overall health with the female athlete triad is fairly obvious. Taken to an extreme, this disorder causes suppressed immunity, cardiovascular issues and a disruption to the endocrine system, depression, anxiety and a decrease in cognitive function. Female athlete triad also affects fertility and may impair the ability to conceive.
Female Athlete Triad Syndrome and Fertility
For those women who don’t get enough nutrition necessary to support ovulation, the signs are somewhat obvious: your periods are irregular or halt altogether and you can’t get pregnant if ovulation stops. If you do happen to conceive, inadequate nutrition may result in malnourishment and skeletal damage, and the baby may fall to thrive or be at risk for numerous birth defects resulting from restricted growth. These include neurological conditions, congenital birth defects and low birth weight.
Those who are still competing or training excessively may need to stop and address each component of the triad in order to recover physical and emotional well-being as well as the ability to conceive a child. Depending on how long you’ve been plagued by this disorder, recovery may be somewhat complicated.
Recovering Your Fertility May be Possible
The long term issues created by the female athlete triad may affect the quality and viability of your eggs or an imbalance of hormones. Both make pregnancy very difficult without the help of a fertility specialist to help you manage your fertility.
When you’re trying to conceive, you should practice your very best healthy lifestyle for your own health and that of your future baby. Your good health begins with a nutrient-rich and balanced diet to ensure your organs are working their best and supporting the necessary hormones that help you conceive.
Find the Answers You Need
The best place to begin is with a full physical and consultation with your physician. An assessment of body composition is definitely in order and, if necessary, follow up therapies.
Once you’re on the road to recovery, you may consult with a fertility specialist who’ll further investigate your fertility. If you’re concerned that female athlete triad syndrome may be affecting your fertility, please reach out to Rise Fertility. Together we’ll make sure you’re on the road to realizing your dream of family.
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