Sports and exercise are part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. 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 for some girls, not balancing the needs of their bodies and their sports can have major consequences.
Some girls who play sports or exercise intensely are at risk for a problem called female athlete triad. Female athlete triad is a combination of three conditions: disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis. A female athlete can have one, two, or all three parts of the triad.
Most girls with female athlete triad try to lose weight primarily to improve their athletic performance. The disordered eating that accompanies female athlete triad can range from avoiding certain types of food the athlete thinks are “bad” (such as foods containing fat) to serious eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
Because a girl with female athlete triad is simultaneously exercising intensely and not eating enough calories, when her weight falls too low, she may experience decreases in estrogen, the hormone that helps to regulate the menstrual cycle. As a result, a girl’s periods may become irregular or stop altogether. Of course, it is normal for teen girls to occasionally miss periods, especially in their first year of having periods. A missed period does not automatically mean a girl has female athlete triad.
Some girls who participate intensively in sports may never even get their first period because they’ve been training so hard. Other girls may have had periods, but once they increase their training and change their eating habits, their periods may stop.
Low estrogen levels and poor nutrition, especially low calcium intake, can lead to osteoporosis, the third aspect of the triad. Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones due to the loss of bone density and improper bone formation. This condition can ruin a female athlete’s career because it may lead to stress fractures and other injuries.
Usually, the teen years are a time when girls should be building up their bone mass to their highest levels — called peak bone mass. Not getting enough calcium during the teen years can also have a lasting effect on how strong a girl’s bones are later in life.
Girls with female athlete triad often care so much about their sports that they would do almost anything to improve their performance. Martial arts and rowing are examples of sports that classify athletes by weight class, so focusing on weight becomes an important part of the training program and can put a girl at risk for disordered eating.
Participation in sports where a thin appearance is valued can also put a girl at risk for female athlete triad. Sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, diving, and ballet are examples of sports that value a thin, lean body shape. Some girls may even be told by coaches or judges that losing weight would improve their scores.
Even in sports where body size and shape aren’t as important, such as distance running and cross-country skiing, girls may be pressured by teammates, parents, partners, and coaches who mistakenly believe that “losing just a few pounds” could improve their performance.
The truth is, though, that losing those few pounds generally doesn’t improve performance at all. People who are fit and active enough to compete in sports generally have more muscle than fat, so it’s the muscle that gets starved when a girl cuts back on food. Plus, if a girl loses weight when she doesn’t need to, it interferes with healthy body processes such as menstruation and bone development.
In addition, for some competitive female athletes, problems such as low self-esteem, a tendency toward perfectionism, and family stress place them at risk for disordered eating.
If a girl has risk factors for female athlete triad, she may already be experiencing some symptoms and signs of the disorder, such as:
Girls with female athlete triad often have signs and symptoms of eating disorders, such as:
An extensive physical examination is a crucial part of diagnosing female athlete triad. Doctor at A+ clinic who thinks a girl has female athlete triad will probably ask questions about her periods, her nutrition and exercise habits, any medications she takes, and her feelings about her body.
Poor nutrition can also affect the body in many ways, so doctor at A+ clinic might advise blood tests to check for anemia and other problems associated with the triad. The doctor also will check for medical reasons why a girl may be losing weight and missing her periods. Because osteoporosis can put a girl at higher risk for bone fractures, the doctor may also request tests to measure bone density.
Doctors don’t work alone to help a girl with female athlete triad. Coaches, parents, physical therapists, pediatricians and adolescent medicine specialists, nutritionists and dietitians, and mental health specialists can all work together to treat the physical and emotional problems that a girl with female athlete triad faces.
Some girls with female athlete triad may need totake hormones to supply their bodies with estrogen so they can get their periods started again. Calcium and vitamin D supplementation is also common for a girl who has suffered bone loss as the result of female athlete triad.
Here are a few tips to help teen athletes stay on top of their physical condition: