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What is Female Athlete Triad Syndrome?

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 8/21/2010

Female athlete triad syndrome is an eating disorder commonly seen in young, athletic women. Find out more about the symptoms and treatment of this problem.

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    Exercise has a variety of health benefits, but extreme exercising too much and restricting calories can have negative health consequences. Such is the case with young women who suffer from female athlete triad syndrome – a condition that’s becoming more common among young, female athletes. What are the causes and symptoms of female athlete triad syndrome – and what’s the best way to treat it?

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    What is Female Athlete Triad Syndrome?

    Female athlete triad syndrome is a condition seen in women who participate in sports. Women with this condition restrict calories and practice other unhealthy eating habits. They also have decreased bone density and a lack of menstrual periods. Although this condition has some characteristics in common with anorexia, another common eating disorder in young women, women with female athlete triad syndrome fail to meet the criteria for this disorder.

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    What are the Symptoms of Female Athlete Triad Syndrome?

    Young women who suffer from this disorder usually experience symptoms due to a combination of calorie restriction and excessive amounts of exercise. Too much exercise in a setting of too little calories causes low energy levels and, in some cases, frank malnutrition.

    Some of the most common symptoms of female athlete triad syndrome are weight loss, fatigue, cold intolerance, abdominal discomfort, enlarged parotid glands, easy bruising, hair loss, dry skin, depression, and absence of menstrual periods.

    Some women with this disorder may experience bone fractures due to loss of bone density. These symptoms stem from the inadequate intake of calories and nutrients, characteristic of this condition. The lack of menstrual periods and the loss in bone density comes from the lower estrogen levels these women have - due to a combination of frequent exercise and inadequate calorie intake.

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    What Causes Female Athlete Triad Syndrome?

    The pressure to compete successfully in sports plays a major role. Female athlete triad syndrome is more common in women who participate in sports that emphasize leanness such as ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, and distance running. Many feel an intense desire to perform well in their sport. Like women who suffer from anorexia, those with female athlete triad syndrome are often “perfectionists” who may have a low self-esteem which drives them to take extreme measures to be successful in their sport – and to stay thin.

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    Treatment of Female Athlete Triad Syndrome

    The treatment of female athlete triad syndrome centers around changing the eating habits of these young women. Usually these women need close monitoring by a physician and nutritionist where they can learn healthier eating habits – and gain back some of their lost weight. It’s also important to check bone density in some women to look for osteoporosis, which is the result of inadequate calcium and low estrogen levels.

    Because young women with female athlete triad syndrome don’t have periods as a result of their calorie restriction and strenuous exercise program, some may require hormone replacement to prevent further bone loss until they can normalize their eating habits – and regain some of the lost weight. Menstrual periods usually re-start once some weight gain has occurred.

    For some young women with this disorder anti-depressant medications and psychological counseling may be needed to deal with self-esteem issues that make recovery from female athlete triad syndrome more difficult.

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    What is Female Athlete Triad Syndrome: The Bottom Line?

    Female athlete syndrome is common among young, female athletes, but with proper nutritional and, sometimes, psychological counseling, this disorder can be successfully treated.

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    References

    American Family Physician. June 1, 2000. "The Female Athlete Triad"

    Clin J Sport Med. 19(5): 421–8.