There's a saying that bad things happen in threes. Interestingly, this phenomenon holds true for adolescent girls and young women who do a great amount of physical activity. The Female Athlete Triad is a combination of three health conditions: disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. A female athlete can have one, two or all three of these conditions.
Generally, sports and exercise are part of a healthy lifestyle. According to Kids Health, "girls who play sports are healthier; get better grades; are less likely to experience depression; and use alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs less frequently than girls who aren't athletes."
But too much of a good thing – even exercise – can harm your body. Sometimes, females who exercise or play sports intensely are at risk for female athlete triad. An extreme focus on physical activity puts the body at a dangerous imbalance.
What is the Female Athlete Triad?
Parents should be aware of these three health conditions:
· Disordered eating – Triad factor #1: Many female athletes become weight conscious in an effort to improve their athletic performance. This weight consciousness can evolve into disordered eating, ranging from abstaining from certain foods (such as those containing fat) to serious eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
· Amenorrhea – Triad factor #2: If a female athlete increases physical activity while decreasing calories, her weight may fall too low. As a result, she may experience decreases in estrogen, the hormone that regulates the menstrual cycle. The athlete may find that her period becomes irregular or stops altogether, a condition called amenorrhea. In some cases, girls who participate intensively in sports may never even get their first period.
· Osteoporosis – Triad factor #3: Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones resulting from the loss of bone density and improper bone formation. Osteoporosis typically conjures up images of elderly women with hunched backs or broken hips. For female athletes, however, low estrogen levels and inadequate nutrition can lead to osteoporosis at a much younger age.
Some girls view the missed periods and disordered eating as a temporary sacrifice for the sake of the sport. But Female Athlete Triad can lead to muscle weakness, stress fractures and reduced physical performance – in the short term. Over the long term, these athletes may suffer from bone weakness, heart conditions, and problems with their reproductive systems.
Signs and symptoms of Female Athlete Triad
The physical symptoms may include any or all of the following:
· weight loss
· irregular periods, or no periods at all
· inability to concentrate
· stress fractures that occur even without significant injury
· muscle injuries
Other warning signs of an eating disorder:
Your daughter may show any of the following symptoms:
· chronic dieting, even after weight loss
· obsession with food and weight
· frequent trips to the bathroom during and after meals and/or use of laxatives
· sensitivity to cold
· low blood pressure and/or low heart rate
· chest pain and tightness
· brittle hair or fingernails
Who is at risk?
Most girls worry about their bodies, but not all are at risk for developing Female Athlete Triad. Risk factors include, but are not limited to, the following:
· being highly competitive and/or passionate about the sport
· participating in a sport that requires intense training, such as long-distance running
· participating in a sport that classifies athletes by weight class, such as martial arts
· participating in a sport where a thin appearance is important, such as gymnastics or ballet
· believing that losing a few pounds could improve performance
· having high-pressure coaches or teammates who encourage intense training and/or weight loss
· having low esteem, perfectionist tendencies and/or family stresses
What girls can do to prevent Female Athlete Triad
Preventing and treating Female Athlete Triad involves more than just the athlete. Doctors, coaches, parents, trainers, physical therapists, nutritionists and even mental health specialists can all work together to address the physical and emotional problems that accompany this condition.
· Most importantly, female athletes must give their bodies enough energy to fuel their performance. Eating a healthy diet is a start, but that diet must consist of sufficient calories to make up for all of the training. A healthy, balanced diet consists of fats, protein and carbohydrates. Taking a daily multivitamin and getting plenty of calcium is important to keep bones strong. And a hectic practice schedule is no excuse for skipping meals or snacks. Athletes should keep a ready supply of healthful snacks in their locker or bag.
· If diet and weight issues are becoming unmanageable, teens should talk to a coach, trainer or health care provider. The earlier problems such as anorexia and bulimia are addressed, the easier they are to treat.
· Female athletes should keep a menstrual calendar. While it's normal for teen girls to occasionally miss periods, it's a good idea to consult their doctor if it happens frequently. A missed period does not automatically indicate that a girl has female athlete triad, but it may be a sign that her body is under too much stress.
· Athletes should not ignore injuries. A recurring pain in the same part of the body could be a stress fracture. A medical professional should check it out.
The bottom line
Girls are in better shape than ever as a result of participating in sports. Being active improves cardiovascular fitness, bone strength and overall health. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of Female Athlete Triad before they become a problem will help young women maintain a healthy balance and get the most out of their beloved sport.