The female athlete triad. No, we’re not talking Serena Williams, Danica Patrick, and Annika Sorenstam here. This triad refers to an interconnected series of health issues that can plague young female athletes, one of which is osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis? At age 16? Sadly, even high school girls can develop osteoporosis. And their risk factors aren’t smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, or alcohol abuse, as they are with older women. Far from it. Osteoporosis in young women can be the result of fitness taken to an extreme: the female athlete triad.
The three parts of this little-known yet devastating syndrome are energy deficiency, caused by too much exercise and too little nourishment; amenorrhea, when a young woman who’s started menstruating stops for longer than 3 months; and osteoporosis, caused by lack of calcium and estrogen. A girl can have one, two, or all three of these conditions. Let’s look at each alone, then consider how they can come together to destroy a seemingly super-fit young woman’s health.
- Energy deficiency: Many teenage girls diet. OK, let’s say it’s the rare one who doesn’t. But not many diet to the extreme, while also carrying on a regimen of intense physical training training for a sport that may also place value on a lithe, svelte body, like figure skating or gymnastics. Or a sport that classifies girls by weight, like martial arts or rowing.
You’ve heard the expression calories in, calories out? Our bodies need a certain number of calories, provided by what we eat, to function normally. If you burn more calories than you take in, you lose weight. If you burn WAY more calories than you take in by severely limiting the types and quantity of the foods you eat, and/or by exercising for hours every day then you exhibit energy deficiency.
Anorexia and bulimia are examples of energy deficiency that are based on lack of calories, rather than too much exercise. But the effect is the same: painful thinness. And this condition leads to the second part of the triad:
- Amenorrhea: Losing too much weight causes a woman’s body to lower its estrogen production. This in turn can wreak havoc with the menstrual cycle, making periods irregular, or stopping them completely. (Some female athletes like swimmers and gymnasts, who start intense training at a very young age, may never even start menstruating until they lessen the intensity of their workouts.)
When a young woman who’s had regular periods stops having them for longer than three months, she has amenorrhea. And this helps lead to the third condition of the female athlete triad:
- Osteoporosis. Extreme thinness. Lack of calcium due to a severely restricted diet. Lack of estrogen. Sounds familiar, right? We’re talking major risk factors for osteoporosis in older women. Well, those same risk factors apply to younger women as well. Only it’s not menopause or failure to take vitamin D supplements that’s at the base of these risk factors. It’s exercise and lack of food, pure and simple.
Osteoporosis is difficult in older women, but it can be completely devastating for a seemingly fit teenager, one training for a shot at the Olympics or some other athletic pinnacle. Stress fractures are common enough for athletes. Add weakened bones, and you’ve got a recipe for leg, arm, and spinal fractures, career-derailing disasters.
Do you know a young, fit woman who’s a driven athlete, training hard for her sport? Someone whose extreme thinness points to a lack of sufficient calories?
Are you that young woman?
Osteoporosis is a real risk, and its result can be crippling. Yes, even at age 16. Please alert intense young athletes to these risks. And if it’s you training for London in 2012, remember that nothing is worth sacrificing your long-term health for. Not even the Olympics.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.