Thursday, October 20, 2011

Female Athlete Triad: Sport Gone Bad

By Claudia L. Reardon, M.D.

Psychiatrists encourage nearly everyone to participate in sports and exercise. Sports not only improve physical health but also can greatly improve mental well-being. However, if girls and women take involvement in sports too far, they can suffer a well-described triad of symptoms. The so-called female athlete triad consists of the following three inter-linked health problems:
  1. Insufficient caloric intake/disordered eating
  2. Menstrual problems
  3. Weak bones
Girls and women who participate in “leanness sports” that emphasize thinness (running, ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, and others) are particularly at risk. If they receive the message that being thinner could result in greater athletic success, they may try to cut down on their caloric intake to levels too low to support their levels of physical activity. This can result in full-blown eating disorders, irregular menstrual cycles, and weak bones (including osteoporosis at young ages).
Some common myths about the female athlete triad include the following:
  • If an athlete’s performance has not started suffering, then she must not have a problem. FACT:  Even if an athlete’s performance has not started suffering, it eventually will.  Not taking in enough calories to match activity level is not sustainable in the long-run.
  • It is normal for female athletes to stop menstruating. FACT:  It is never normal for a female athlete to stop menstruating. There are serious health risks, especially bone loss, to not menstruating. Studies show that after three years of not menstruating, bone loss is likely to be permanent. Loss of future reproductive function could also occur.
  • If an athlete is not eating enough to match activity level, she is aware of what she's doing. FACT: Denial is powerful. Athletes will very often feel that they are being as healthy as possible, and that meticulous attention to diet is a sign of dedication to sport. Coaches, parents, and professionals will need to help the athlete see the problems with the behaviors.
  • An athlete who eats “healthy," is a top performer on the team, and excels in class is unlikely to have an eating disorder. FACT: Traits that are desirable in an athlete can make them more at risk of developing an eating disorder. Mental toughness, pursuit of excellence, performance despite pain, commitment to training, and being a team player are very similar to excessive exercise, perfectionism, denial of discomfort, and being self-less.
What can you do if someone you know might be suffering from the female athlete triad?

  1. Share your concerns with the athlete.
  2. Talk with the coach, athletic trainer, or school counselor.
  3. Encourage the athlete to see a physician and dietitian. Not all health care professionals are familiar with the details of the female athlete triad; to help them out, you can send along this brochure with the athlete to the appointment.

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