What is the Female Athlete Triad?

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen
Some women competing in track events show symptoms of the female athlete triad.
Some women competing in track events show symptoms of the female athlete triad.

The female athlete triad involves a mix of three different disorders that tend to strike females involved in certain sports. A woman with the triad generally suffers from a mix of eating disorders, irregular menstruation, and a decrease in bone mass. The three disorders are generally related to each other, although some athletes may not have all three, at least not to an obvious degree. The female athlete triad is potentially dangerous if left untreated, and dealing with it can involve everything from nutritional changes to psychological help.

Generally speaking, the female athlete triad stems from the attempts of athletic women to keep their weight down. This generally starts with unhealthy eating patterns. Women who play certain sports may put a large emphasis on dieting, and they may not eat enough to account for the high-energy output they exert as athletes. This lack of nutrition often causes the body to produce less estrogen, and this may result in missed periods, or in some cases, no periods at all. If women don’t menstruate on a normal cycle, they may eventually start to lose bone mass, and this can result in constant injuries.

Some women may only have some of the symptoms of the triad, and it isn’t always extremely severe. For example, some female athletes may miss an occasional period, but the problem may not be severe enough to cause bone loss. There may be subtle effects happening to the body that are too small to detect.

Some of the sports that most commonly lead to the female athlete triad are gymnastics, track, and ballet. As a general rule, any sport that emphasizes an extremely small body can lead to trouble. Women also often have problems with sports that have weight classes, because they may spend a lot of time focusing on their exact size.

The female athlete triad is especially dangerous for younger athletes because their bodies are still developing, and anything that happens to them can have physical consequences that continue for the rest of their lives. For example, bone loss during the teen years can be especially devastating because women may still be growing at that time. If they don't receive the right nutrition, their whole developmental process may be short-circuited.

Once the female athlete triad is diagnosed, doctors will generally put the woman on a strict nutritional plan. If the woman has developed severe eating disorders, she may need counseling to get back to normal eating patterns. Sometimes women may also need to take special dietary supplements to make up for lost nutrition.

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    • Some women competing in track events show symptoms of the female athlete triad.
      Some women competing in track events show symptoms of the female athlete triad.