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Female athlete triad

Published in Women's Services, For the Health of It Author: Angela M. Beck

Registered Dietitian
CentraCare Weight Management

When we think of women’s health, birth control, pregnancy or breast cancer may be some of the first topics that come to mind. A less discussed condition, but one worth time and attention — especially if you or your daughter is an athlete — is “female athlete triad.” A woman with the female athlete triad has all three of the following.

  1. Loss of a menstrual cycle (three consecutive missed months of menstruation)
  2. Disordered eating
  3. Osteoporosis (brittle bones)

More young women than ever feel pressure to succeed at sports, which can lead to the desire for an athletic, muscular, lean and thin body to help improve their performance or impress coaches and teammates. As they work hard to achieve athletic goals excessive exercising and under eating can lower their level of estrogen and lead to irregular or absent periods.

Athletes in sports that value the thin body shape (such as gymnastics, figure skating, swimming and diving, ballet, long-distance running) put women at a greater risk for the female athlete triad. A low self-esteem, perfectionistic personality, personal or family stress and obsession with how they look are other risk factors.

Other signs and symptoms of the disorder may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue/low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Stress fractures
  • Preoccupation with food and weight
  • Obsession with exercise
  • Disordered eating
  • Low heart rate and blood pressure
  • Sensitive to cold

These signs and symptoms should not be taken lightly as over time they can lead to bone weakness, negative effects on the reproductive system or heart problems. A multidisciplinary approach from the health care team can help female athletes keep a regular period and restore bone health.

While intense training and a disciplined diet may improve athletic performance, it is never worth permanent damage.