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Everything you need to know about the "Female Athlete Triad"
OK, we probably aren't the first to tell you that moving your body and eating well are the hallmarks of cultivating a healthy lifestyle. But contrary to popular belief, it is actually very possible to push that "healthy lifestyle" over the edge.
Common among teenage girls, the "Female Athlete Triad" is defined by Massachusetts General Hospital's Neuroendocrine Unit as the interdependence of three key symptoms: period loss, low energy availability and minimized bone density. These symptoms are typically caused by a combination of over-exercising and under-eating—habits that have become wayyy too normalized in the era of fitness influencers.
While some of these symptoms may appear insignificant, the Female Athlete Triad can have a considerable impact on short-term athletic success and long-term health. We're breaking down every question you may have about the triad to help you keep your healthy lifestyle *actually* healthy.
How does this happen?
Whether you're a gymnast, a cross-country runner or just a self-proclaimed "gym rat," the female athlete triad can result from almost any form of exercise—if that exercise becomes excessive. Especially in sports that have a history of favoring "thinness," such as dancing and running, disordered eating habits may be coupled with over-training at higher levels.
If you are a girl who runs six days a week at practice or dances for three hours almost every day, extra calories will be needed to maintain adequate energy. Problems like the triad arise when these extra calories are not provided to the body. When caloric needs are not met, the body enters a sort of "survival mode," shutting off non-essential functions, like your monthly period, and slowing your metabolism and hormone release to conserve energy.
What are the effects of the Female Athlete Triad?
Now you may be thinking, "No PMS or nasty cramps? Sounds like a dream!", and DW, we understand. While a break from that monthly period pain does sound ever-so-nice in theory, your period serves a very important role in regulating your typical bodily functions. Without it, increased risks of long-term infertility or cardiovascular disease could occur.
With low hormone levels also comes low bone density. The lack of estrogen (the primary female hormone) released during period loss prevents calcium from building strong bones. This can make athletes more susceptible to injury and lead to osteoporosis (low bone density) in the future.
Finally, the effects of long-term low energy can impact life beyond the court, field or dance floor. If you're a student athlete, you likely lead a busy lifestyle. Not only are you active in sports, but you're probably studying for that annoying algebra test and shopping for a prom dress, too. All of these things require energy. Without enough nutrients, it can be more difficult to complete basic tasks, because your brain has less energy. Your brain needs food too!
What can I do about it?
Avoiding the Female Athlete Triad sometimes requires a lot of personal strength, but it's nothing you can't do. Not only is the triad a physical disorder, but it's a mental one too. Here are our tips for preventing the Triad's effects on your own:
- Make sure you're eating three meals a day, with 1-2 snacks in between.
- Avoid paying attention to caloric intake or weight—numbers don't matter.
- Listen to your body when you're exercising. Do you feel tired? Dizzy? Slow down and take a break.
- Unfollow any accounts on social media who make you feel negative about your body.
All of these tips may help, but the Triad can be unique to everyone. Certain tips may be of more benefit to others. However, if you have not had a period in the past three months, it is very important that you talk to an adult you can trust about how to tackle the issue first. It could be tempting to keep something like period loss to yourself, but parents, doctors and counselors will have the best solutions to help you.
If you cannot find an adult to talk to and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at (800) 931-2237.
Is there anything else I should know?
No matter what social media, your coach or any other people might say, your body is strong and beautiful. Instead of focusing on limiting food intake to reach new athletic goals, try maximizing the amount of nutrient-dense foods you eat. Instead of increasing your workout regimen to become fitter, do a variety of different workouts throughout the week to train your whole body over time.
As an athlete, it is more than necessary to eat well, but "eating well" doesn't mean low-calorie. Eating well means maintaining a balanced diet—hit the core food groups, but don't be afraid to have a cookie after dinner, too.
What are your go-to strategies for taking care of your bod post-workout?
Let us know on Twitter @girlslifemag.
Top and slider images: @reneenoe
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