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The Female Athlete Triad: Three Preventable Health Conditions

What motivates you? Is it hitting a three-pointer before the final buzzer? Maybe it’s crushing the school record for the 100-meter sprint. Or maybe it’s graduating from JV to Varsity before your senior year. Whatever motivates you, developing healthy habits as a teenager will help you achieve your goals.

Playing sports as a teen is a great way to stay healthy, make friends, become a part of a community, and develop healthy habits at an early age. But the pressure to crush the competition, school and personal records, or be a varsity starter can cause some unhealthy habits in teens. Before you set your sights on a goal, commit to making your health a top priority.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the pressure to perform too often results in “the female athlete triad” — three unhealthy conditions that often emerge for girls who play sports.

  • Weight loss or being underweight: Teen girls who play sports and try to quickly lose weight may develop disordered eating habits such as fasting, skipping meals, extreme dieting, self-induced vomiting, or using diuretics, laxatives, or stimulants. 
  • Irregular or missed periods: When your body’s fat and estrogen levels are too low, you may not get a period. While a missed period isn’t always a cause for concern (hey, some women’s cycles never get regular), consistently irregular periods (or periods that never occur) can be a sign of low estrogen.
  • Low bone mass: Low estrogen, caused by being underweight or extreme weight loss, can result in low bone mass/density. During your teen years, your body is developing the bone mass that will carry you through your entire life. Now isn’t the time to compromise your long-term health!

What causes the female athlete triad?

According to ACOG, “a woman’s weight, estrogen levels, and bone mass are all related. Fat is the tissue in your body that stores energy. If you lose too much fat, your body will make changes to try to save energy. You will lose muscle mass and your estrogen levels will decrease. Decreasing estrogen levels can affect your periods and put you at risk of weakened bones and stress fractures.”

In short, when female athletes develop disordered eating habits, it impacts your hormones, which impacts your overall health. ACOG also notes that teens who fall into the female athlete triad may be compromising their immune system.

How can you combat the female athlete triad?

First, be honest with yourself!

Avoiding or resolving the female athlete triad starts with you! You know what you’re putting into your body. You know how much you are exercising. You know how you feel. If you feel tired, weak, or hungry, you need to fuel your body. Your health always comes first.

If teammates or coaches are making you feel pressured about eating or exercise habits, talk to someone you trust, like a parent, friend, or your healthcare provider.

Second, eat healthily.

Your body needs fuel. According to ACOG, “eating healthy means getting a combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Every day you should eat grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy. Protein helps grow and repair muscles. Carbohydrates fuel your daily activity. Fats help your immune system function well, and they help your body use important vitamins.”

Third, talk with your healthcare provider about developing healthy habits.

Conversations with your healthcare provider are private, so you can be honest about what you are experiencing. And at Southdale ObGyn, we pride ourselves on helping you feel comfortable enough to ask personal questions about your body and health. It isn’t always easy to talk to a parent or coach about your health. If you’re concerned about your body, weight, or physical performance, discuss healthy options with your healthcare provider. 

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, if your body’s systems aren’t working as they should, your body can’t perform at its best and your athletic performance could suffer. So, when you set your goals, make one of them building healthy habits for life. 

If you have any questions or concerns be sure to check in with your doctor and schedule wellness exams regularly. It’s never to early to take care of yourself!