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Health

'Female Athlete Triad' Of Interrelated Health Conditions Dangerous, But Preventable

If you’re an active female and you’ve skipped a couple of periods, you might want to see a doctor. Amenorrhea can have serious implications for female athletes.

“The female athlete triad is a term that describes three distinct but interrelated conditions, low energy availability with or without an eating disorder, menstrual dysfunction, and low bone mineral density," said Dr. Elizabeth Joy, a family medicine and sports medicine physician at Intermountain Healthcare. 

She recently lectured at Utah State University on the female athlete triad, a trio of conditions that affect female athletes, especially female athletes that train in sports where low weight confers an advantage.

“It often occurs when people are having insufficient dietary intake to support the amount of physical activity they do. And that in turn results in an absence of menstruation or a loss of normal reproductive function, and then low bone mineral density,” said Joy.

Although some athletes believe that skipping periods means that their training is optimal, Joy said that encouraging or ignoring amenorrhea is harmful to women’s athletic performance, because the estrogen released in a regular menstrual cycle is crucial for bone health.

“So, when the female athlete triad exists all the way through to low bone mineral density and you have a weight bearing athlete, like a runner, for example, their risk for bone stress injuries, which are often referred to as stress reactions or stress fractures," said Joy. "It can be a career ending injury and it can in fact be a life altering injury, particularly if it results in a serious fractures later on like a hip fracture or a spine fracture.”

Prevention of the triad is simple – make sure to eat enough to fuel your sport, and don’t over train, and if you aren’t having regular periods, see a doctor right away.