How long have you been on diet? The Female Athlete Triad.

The Female Athlete Triad was first identified as a major issue in some disciplines of sport during the 80’s. It is commonly seen in women striving for body image ‘perfection’ and women aiming to compete at a high level in sports that require leanness.

It is a combination of disordered eating, amenorrhoea and osteoporosis that can cause lifelong symptoms which may eventually become fatal. The medical complications that arise from the triad are vast and include cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, reproductive, skeletal, renal and central nervous system ailments.

The reason I have elected to delve in to this is because this syndrome actually affects many of us to varied degrees. So if you don’t think you suffer from any of the triad components maybe you need think again.

1. Disordered eating – This simply translates to an energy deficient diet. Most of us have been guilty of this when trying to lose weight or going ‘carb free’ for an extended period. There’s no problem with energy in being less than energy out, but when this is executed in extremes and for a prolonged period of time there are serious long term effects. While there may be a big difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating in our minds, they are not differentiated in the Triad as their long term effects are so similar.

2. Amenorrhoea – By definition this means cessation of menstruation. However this can present as a total loss, reduced frequency, decreased duration or irregular period.

3. Osteoporosis – A compromised bone strength aka low bone density. The precursor to this condition, Osteopenia is thought to affect a much higher portion of the population than those that are formerly diagnosed with one study of “normal healthy females” finding 56% of women showed signs of low bone mineral density.

Like with most medical syndromes there is a sliding scale of severity, with many suffering the milder symptoms but are at great risk of rapidly sliding down the scale. As the components are so related if you start suffering with one of the components of the triad it can very quickly trigger the others.

Some common early signs and symptoms are stress fractures, a slow healing rate, depression, fatigue, infertility, hair loss, dry skin, cold extremities and cessation of menstruation.

So now might be a good time to have your bone density checked, start tracking your menstruation more carefully and take a good look at any restrictions you’ve been placing on your diet. I hope this serves as a good reminder that there are long term consequences to the seemingly small day-to-day diet and training errors we make.


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