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The Female Athlete Triad: Could You Be At Risk?

One major issue that many women who are getting serious about their workouts start to deal with is known as the female athlete triad.

The female athlete triad can affect a wide variety of individuals, from someone training for a rigorous competitive sport to someone who is simply trying to take their physique to a new level. Most commonly it is seen in activities that do place a high amount of focus on the image of the body, such as ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, and women's fitness.

It's important that you learn to recognize exactly what the female athlete triad consists of so that you are not only aware if you are already experiencing it but also, you learn what you can do to protect yourself from further damage taking place.
The Three Main Components
Of The Female Athlete Triad


The female athlete triad, like the name suggests, is composed of three big factors.

1. Amenorrhea

Amenorrhea can be defined as the cessation of the menstrual cycle, after it had previously been somewhat regular, for three or more months in a row.
While some women may just be irregular, the key here is that they are not getting periods at all. It can be slightly difficult to establish if this is your issue if you have always been irregular, but most often even those who are irregular will get at least one menstrual period of a three month cycle.

2. Eating Disorders

The second component of the female athlete triad is the presence of any one of the various eating disorders that are seen. This could be anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, or an unclassified disorder (unhealthy relationship with food). Remember to keep in mind here that one does not need to be fully starving themselves to have an eating disorder.  You could simply be feeling extreme amounts of guilt after even a small detour from your diet and this could classify you as having an eating disorder or unhealthy relationship with food.

3. Osteoporosis

Then, the third factor in this condition is osteoporosis. This factor particularly, is very detrimental to the woman as it could set her up to experience an increased risk of stress fractures or broken bones for the rest of her life.  Many women also start to remove dairy products from their diet as they believe it will cause weight gain and once again, this only further enhances the problem.
Additionally, this factor usually comes about because of the previous two factors.

What Causes The Female Athlete Triad

In terms of what causes this condition to develop, there have been many research studies that have tried to determine just this and unfortunately there isn't once single precipitating factor, but rather, it's a combination of factors that seem to be at play.

First, usually what causes the condition to strike is that the individual is not consuming enough total daily calories.  This seems to be the most important part of the equation; therefore, if you are hoping to avoid the development of these problems, eating enough is your best preventative mechanism. As an easy general guideline, for weight loss, the lowest number of calories you consume should be ten times your body weight.

So for example, a female weighing 130 pounds would require a minimum of 1300 calories each day – and this is for maximum fat loss.

The second thing that needs to be looked at is the woman's overall body composition.  Women need so much fat on their bodies in order to function effectively.  When there is a lack of total body fat, problems occur, particularly with the reproductive system – as seen with the loss of the periods.

Usually these two are interconnected as many times a woman is not taking in enough total calories will obviously have a lower body fat level.
Between the two though, total calories is more important as there are a select few who are able to maintain quite low body fat percentages, yet still avoid the development of this problem. 

Why is this? It's because they are eating enough calories to maintain their weight, their weight is just a lot of lean mass and little fat tissue.

Finally, the third reason that this condition can develop is because of overexercising.  When a woman overdoes it in the gym or on the court/field, she is starting to place an inordinate amount of stress on her system, and both her CNS and reproductive system will respond in a negative way. Rest is very critical in any workout program and should be scheduled in regularly.

So, the three main points to watch out for are a loss of your periods, abnormal or unhealthy eating behaviors, and a workout schedule that allows you very little, if any rest at all.

If you are suffering from any of those, or a combination of them, you may want to speak to a professional (both medical and psychological), as all three are very interrelated, with the development of one often leading to the development of another.

If, on the other hand, you are already experiencing problems, then your first step is to cut back on the amount of exercise you are doing and your second step is to increase the amount of calories you are consuming.  Increase the calories slightly slowly as this might be a scary process for you, aiming for a weekly increase of about 10% of your total current intake each week.  This will also allow the metabolism to keep up with this increased amount of food and prevent you from gaining any weight in the process.

If you complete both of these objectives, you should find that slowly your body fat levels also become more regulated, which fixes the last issue of this disorder.

So, if this sounds like it could be a condition you are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing, be sure to have a good hard look at your training and eating habits. Your health should always be the number one priority, even if some of you would rather place looks as your main objective.

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