GREENWICH, Conn. -- Regular physical activity has many benefits for girls and women. It helps to build and maintain bone strength, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, control weight and build lean muscle. However, if an athlete’s caloric intake is inadequate to fuel the amount of energy used during exercise as well as normal body functions such as growth, development and menstruation, serious health consequences can occur.
In what’s known as Female Athlete Triad syndrome, insufficient nutrition, menstrual disruptions, and decreased bone density become intertwined. Athletes who have the Triad don’t necessarily meet the criteria for an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, but the effects on the body are very similar. According to sports medicine specialist, Dr. Katherine Vadasdi, director of the ONS Women’s Sports Medicine Center, the bone density of these athletes may be less than expected for their age, and may even be low enough to be considered in the early stages of osteoporosis. Adolescent athletes in particular are depriving their bodies of the nutrition needed to build strong bones, which greatly increases their risk for fractures later in life. Athletes suffering from the triad are prone to fatigue, recurring injury and repeated stress fractures. “The longer an athlete experiences disruptions to their menstrual cycles and insufficient nutrition, the more likely she is to experience stress fractures,” said Dr. Vadasdi.
Young female athletes at the highest risk for developing the Triad are those who are involved in highly competitive sports, endurance sports, and activities requiring a lean physique such as gymnastics, skating and dance. However, athletes in any sport can develop the syndrome if they don’t eat enough.
Young athletes experiencing one or a combination of the symptoms should seek medical help immediately. Since the physical damage is a gradual progression, healthy eating and the smart exercise can prevent warning signs from becoming a full blown health problem. In most cases, simply eating more and gaining weight can restore regularity to the menstrual cycle and improve bone density. However, in some case, decreased density may never fully repair.
To learn more about the Female Athlete Triad Syndrome, contact ONS.