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Female Athlete Triad: Definition & Treatment

Female Athlete Triad: Definition & Treatment
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  • 0:01 Female Athlete Triad
  • 1:30 Components
  • 3:29 Treatment
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

For some female athletes, working out and dieting too hard can lead to health problems. Learn about the female athlete triad, a condition associated with disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis in active girls and women, in this lesson.

Female Athlete Triad

Jenny was thrilled to make her college gymnastics team, but she was nervous about how she would measure up in competition against so many top athletes. She noticed that the gymnasts with the most success were thinner than she was, so Jenny decided to cut down on the amount of food she was eating and start running after practice in hopes of losing a few pounds and gaining an edge over her competition. With all of her studying and time spent exercising, Jenny hardly noticed that she had stopped getting her monthly menstrual cycle; it wasn't until she experienced a stress fracture in her foot that she realized that her reduced calories and increased exercise had caused her more harm than good.

Jenny was suffering from female athlete triad, which is a condition seen in athletic girls and women that includes disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. In Jenny's case, the pressure to change her body in hopes of enhancing her performance came from an internal desire to be a more competitive gymnast, yet this pressure can come from others, including well-meaning coaches, family members and teammates. And, while Jenny's sport was gymnastics, where being lean and thin has some advantages, we see this condition in any athletic arena, from martial arts to team sports. Let's take a closer look at the three, or triad, of components that define this condition.

Components

Now, it's important to understand that a good diet and regular exercise are beneficial for female athletes, but when diet and exercise get out of balance, the result can be harmful. Take, for instance, the first component of the triad, which is disordered eating. This can mean an overall decrease in the amount of food, or calories, being eaten, but it can also be described as avoiding certain nutrients that the athlete mistakenly thinks are 'bad,' such avoiding carbs or fats.

When energy intake from food is restricted or combined with increased exercise, the body changes the hormonal levels that regulate the reproductive menstrual cycle. It's almost as if the body realizes that it does not have enough of the calories or nutrients it needs to support a baby, so it removes the possibility of pregnancy by stopping the menstrual period; in other words, it brings about the second component of the disorder, known as amenorrhea.

Estrogen is one of the hormones needed to support the regular menstrual cycle, but we see that levels of estrogen drop with a drop in calories. Low estrogen, along with a nutrient-poor diet, can lead to the third leg of the female athlete triad, which is osteoporosis, or the loss of bone density. In Jenny's case, her loss of bone density weakened her bones, leading to a stress fracture in her foot. This was devastating to Jenny because the injury meant she couldn't practice and ruined her chance to compete in gymnastic meets.

But, there's more to be worried about than just having to sit on the sidelines, especially for women around college age. This is because teenage girls and young women are at an age where bone mass should be building toward peak bone mass, which is the highest level of bone density. If bone mass is lost at this stage in life, it could lead to weaker bones for a lifetime.

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