The female athlete triad. Sounds like a trio of women roaming the globe to promote fitness or something but it isn't. It is a syndrome that can be brought on by too much exercise and not enough to eat.
"The Triad is associated with a failure to consume enough calories to support exercise recovery and bodily functions," says Mary Jane De Souza, Ph.D., director of the Women's Health and Exercise Lab at Pennsylvania State University.
Its symptoms include feeling wiped out, foggy-brained, or having problems concentrating.
According to De Souza, it is called a triad because it has three interrelated characteristics: energy deficiency, menstrual cycle disturbances, and bone loss. If you experience one, you are considered to be a triad sufferer, she says.
Exercise is essential and vital to your health but you have to be sure you are fueling yourself properly. Inadequate nutrition can disrupt your hormone levels like estrogen and luteinizing hormone. "It's complicated," says Michelle Barrack, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at California State University, Long Beach. "But when someone has lower energy intake compared to energy expenditure, over time, this low energy availability will disrupt various hormones linked to the menstrual cycle, which also affects bone density."
This deficiency can happen quite by accident. Like if you aren't tracking your calorie burn, you may not know how much you need to refuel. De Souza says she most often sees Triad among physically active women who are exercising daily and also consciously trying to restrict their calorie intake.
Obviously cutting calories and upping your exercise is the way to achieve weight loss but being thinner does not necessarily translate to being healthier.
"Your body needs energy for muscle recovery, bone health, and proper hormone function," De Souza says
An early signs that you may be in trouble include daily fatigue -- especially if you find you are getting more than enough sleep -- problems thinking, concentrating, or a plateau in athletic performance. I speak to women who say they're training like crazy but their performance is flatlining or getting worse," De Souza says. "That tells me they're not eating enough and are at risk for Triad."
As it progresses, symptoms can include getting sick all the time, experiencing irregular or absent menstrual cycles, or suffering frequent stress fractures or other injuries, De Souza says.
If you are a physically active woman, De Souza says you should consume between 2,000-5,000 calories a day. Avocados, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and low-fat dairy are all healthy, calorie-dense foods which can help you keep yourself above water.
Have smaller snacks and meals spread throughout the day instead of three big meals. Spreading your calories among smaller meals will help you maintain stable blood glucose and avoid gastrointestinal discomfort. Although eating after exercise isn't necessarily linked to combating the triad, it is a great time to grab some quick calories. Grab some healthy carbs and protein within 30 minutes after a workout.
But remember, every woman is different and every woman has different energy needs. If you are active and are concerned about your health, it might be worthwhile to talk to your doctor or a sports dietitian to come up with a diet plan that suits your needs.
Exercise is awesome. But not when it is killing your health. Never forget to refuel.