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If you’re a woman, there’s about a 1 in 5 chance you’ve experienced amenorrhea, but you probably had no idea. It occurs in about 20 percent of active young high school, college, and young adult female athletes.
It’s defined as missing three or more consecutive menstrual periods and is not often discussed among women. For female athletes, it can be seen as a good thing – they no longer have to deal with the inconvenience of having their menses while practicing and competing. Some women actually see this as a sign that they are underweight, an unfortunately encouraging way to spur body dysmorphia and disordered eating.
In reality, the absence of periods is linked with harmful health, both in the short and long term. Amenorrhea causes a leaching of calcium from the bones, increasing the risk of stress fractures at an alarming rate. This puts women at risk for low bone density during their most important bone-building years and can lead to early-onset osteoporosis. Chronic untreated amenorrhea is also known to have a negative impact on fertility during the childbearing years.
Some sports have been highlighted as high-risk sports for amenorrhea. Long-distance running, gymnastics and ballet top the list, where better performance is directly associated with ultra thinness. Athletes who feel the need to under-eat and over-exercise are at the greatest risk. Athletes do, however, have to be under-fueling in order to experience amenorrhea. Typically, those who fuel adequately do not experience irregularity.
Female Athlete Triad
There is a fine line between a healthy, strong female athlete and an unhealthy one. It’s typically based around sufficient fueling through adequate nutrition but is intermingled with unrealistic weight expectations and body dysmorphic issues, a disorder known as the Female Athlete Triad. The diagram below illustrates the cycle that creates a disappearance of menses and how this can spiral out of control.
Natural, Nutritious Solutions
If you recognize a friend, relative or teammate that mentions that she is experiencing irregular or complete loss of periods, it would be wise to suggest a nutritional check-up with a doctor, gynecologist as well as a sports dietitian. Some may think that starting on oral contraceptives will solve the problem. It does not. It may jump-start periods, but it does not stop the negative health consequences of restrictive eating.
The younger an athlete is, the better chance there is to reverse symptoms or amenorrhea, so education and awareness is the key! Making smoothies with the nutrients noted above can lead to very beneficial results for female athletes who have been diagnosed with female athlete triad or amenorrhea.
Jenn Giles, R.D., C.S.S.D. is all about health and wellness. She has over 15 years’ experience, including a dual master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She supplements all of this with her spin instructor certification and USATriathlon Level I Coach Certification.
Jennifer is passionate about (actually, obsessed with) the sport of triathlon. She has been personally participating in triathlons since 2000 and running road races since 1992. She is a two-time Ironman finisher and has completed countless numerous marathons. She has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite since 2006 and competed as a member of the 2006 Aquaphor/Active.com Sponsored Athlete Team. She was ranked as USAT All American Honorable mention in 2006 and 2011. Jennifer does all of this along side of her husband, Patrick, who is an equally accomplished triathlete and runner. They try as hard as they can to do all of their training and racing together.
She will tell you, however, that her most important, most rewarding and most challenging job is as a mother of four. She knows first hand the challenges of maintaining optimal fitness, overall good health and achieving goals while raising a family - of which good nutrition is the cornerstone.
Most importantly, she knows how to motivate, inspire and challenge athletes based on their own abilities, strengths and everyday lifestyles. She believes there is an athlete in everyone - no matter what their abilities are – and if those abilities are manifold, then there is an even better athlete in there!