Reproductive Consequences of Underfueling
By Nicole Strock PhD (ABD), Theresa Cwenar & Maddie Holmberg, Mary Jane De Souza PhD
Manipulating weight for competitions is a commonly accepted social norm in the world of combat sports. As athletes, you are raised with “whatever it takes” mindset and “no pain no gain” attitude. These tools can lead to great success, but where can they become harmful? The answer is clear: when you jeopardize your health. You cannot reach peak performance if you are not healthy enough to train. As an athlete, it is important to understand that an inadequate energy intake may lead to impaired health and impaired performance. When you are not consuming enough calories each day to meet the needs for your level of physical activity, your body begins to alter important systems. When you are properly fueling and utilizing food as a tool to supplement your training, you will be better prepared and have the energy to pursue your short- and long-term goals.
As women who fight, it is essential to fuel your body so that you have enough energy for every round. Because many combat sports involve weight-cycling, this puts you at higher risk for being in a state of energy deficiency--this occurs when you do not have enough energy for your body’s needs or exercise. An energy deficiency will not allow you to feel your best throughout a training session or throughout the day, and we will explain how it can lead to a chain reaction of other health complications. The most important idea to keep in mind is to focus on how your body feels, and not how it looks in the mirror. As women in combat sports, we cannot deny that the number on the scale is important, however, it is crucial that you are competing at a weight that supports your health and are achieving this weight in a healthful way.
You might be wondering, what can happen to your body if you are chronically energy deficient or underfueled? When you are consistently depriving yourself of adequate fueling to support practice and competition, you put yourself at risk to develop physiological consequences of The Female Athlete Triad (Triad), a condition encompassing the metabolic and reproductive dysfunction stemming from a chronic energy deficit that contributes to poor bone health . Almost four decades of rigorous scientific research have investigated the energy-reproduction-bone paradigm, i.e., the Female Athlete Triad and it has recently been used as the evidence-based cornerstone of the more recently introduced model of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) [2, 3]. Simply put, when you aren’t eating enough to support high training loads, your metabolism slows down and you might experience a range of menstrual cycle disturbances. Essentially, your body has complex mechanisms to sense and communicate energetic status to various tissues and organs throughout the body- one key regulator is the hypothalamus-pituitary-ovarian axis. During times of energy deficiency, the “communication,” indicated by the release of hormones, between the hypothalamus and pituitary gland is lessened, which ultimately impacts the release of other hormones controlling reproductive function [4, 5]. When underfueling has occurred for an extended period of time, you could experience a severe reproductive dysfunction called amenorrhea, or the lack of a menstrual period for three or more months. This can have serious implications for your bone health, because when you are not regularly menstruating, you are not producing enough estrogen—estrogen is incredibly important for bone health by helping to prevent the breakdown of bone and the occurrence of bone stress injuries.
Photo by: Nigel Lough
While amenorrhea represents the severe reproductive endpoint of the Triad, is it still possible to experience subclinical (less severe) menstrual disturbances even with a subtle energy deficit. Subclinical menstrual disturbances, such as luteal phase defects and anovulation, may be more difficult to identify because you may appear to have normal monthly menstrual bleeding. However, the quality of your reproductive cycle with subclinical conditions, which can be identified through reproductive hormone monitoring, is actually compromised. In the case of anovulation, the amount of estrogen produced in the first 12-14 days of menstrual cycle (i.e. follicular phase) is not adequate to trigger a mid-cycle surge of luteinizing hormone and release of an egg from your ovaries. Similarly, with luteal phase defects, while follicular phase estrogen production may be adequate to trigger ovulation, the hormone profile in the second phase of the menstrual cycle (i.e. luteal phase) indicates that the quality of the lining of the uterus is too poor to support the implantation of a fertilized egg. Importantly, research indicates that the prevalence of luteal phase defects and anovulation in exercising women is around 50% , with a 3-month sample incidence of 79% . Specific to combat-sports, the prevalence of menstrual dysfunction has been reported to be between 54.6-58.3% [8, 9]. Take home message: Many exercising women, including those in combat sports, may be experiencing subclinical menstrual disturbances without even realizing it.
Attaining proper nutrition, with guidance from trained sports nutritionists, can help prevent these reproductive health consequences of the Triad. You can learn more about proper diet and nutrition online, however, be cautious of where you find facts about diet and exercise. For example, social media can be full of very educated people with a lot of knowledge, certifications, and degrees; however, nutrition and exercise can be a very personalised topic. Therefore, when these influencers, with or without titles, are broadcasting research or “facts” on their pages, be aware that you may not be their target audience. Nutrition and exercise prescription can look different for athletes, people with diabetes, obese individuals, children, those recovering from eating disorders, etc… Moreover, just like we can hop on social media and assume posts are facts, it is easy to hear advice from parents, friends, teammates, and coaches and accept it as fact. Just because a diet or method of training works for one individual does not guarantee a similar result for another. Remember adequate fueling not only allows you to feel your best, but also to perform at your best.
Side note to the guys (men) out there that are involved in combat sports- you too are not immune to the effects of chronic energy deficiency. In fact, you too can experience problems with reproductive function, to include low testosterone levels [10, 11] and abnormal sperm quality/production , that is also associated with poor bone health [13, 14], a syndrome we now refer to as the Male Athlete Triad [15, 16].
To check out tips on fueling and learn more about the importance of properly fueling and the effects it has on your body, head to The Female and Male Athlete Triad Coalition’s website, www.femaleandmaleathletetriad.org. On the website, you will find Educational Resources on the Athlete Triad and its components, Nutrition Insights, Athlete Testimonials, as well as information on the Coalition and their research. To stay up to date on The Female and Male Athlete Triad Coalition’s latest research, our 2020 Fuel for Function movement, and more, follow along on Instagram and Twitter: @theathletetriad.
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