Welcome back to the dancer blog! Last time we discussed dance and the menstrual cycle. We broke down the hormonal changes that occur throughout menstruation and how we can modify our dance training to take advantage of fluctuating hormonal levels while protecting against periods when we are more susceptible to injury. This week we will be beginning our discussion on what happens when we neglect our health by over taxing our body, failing to meet nutritional requirements and ultimately compromise the delicate hormonal balance that exists in each bio-sex female. This week we will be discussing the female athlete triad.
What is the female athlete triad? Simply put, this is a condition defined by three symptoms: severe reduction in energy levels, loss of menstruation and development of osteoporosis. This condition most often affects teenage and young adult aged women.
What causes someone to develop the female athlete triad? Again, simply put, poor nutrition.
To go deeper, let’s take this one step at a time. The female athlete triad is really a chain reaction of events that all stem from one very simple concept: expending more energy than you are taking in.
When we eat food, our body breaks that food down and uses it to make energy. We’re talking about chemical energy: Adenosine TriPhosphate or ATP for short. We measure how much food we intake by calories. The more we exercise, or in our case, dance, the more energy our body needs to function properly. If the number of calories we consume every day is less than the number of calories our bodies need to function properly while dancing, then the result is the development of the female athlete triad.
So how does this happen? In a healthy dancer, we should have adequate caloric intake. This leads to adequate levels of energy, which in turn causes us to have the proper balance of hormones needed to regulate a healthy menstrual cycle, thus allowing our bodies to create healthy and strong bones.
BUT, when we consume too few calories to meet our energy demands, we begin to impact the way energy is generated in our body. Normally, the body uses sugar to generate energy for our daily needs. This occurs through a very complex process called glycolysis. The TLDR here is that for every molecule of glucose, we create 36 usable molecules of ATP. Glucose comes from sugar and sugar comes from carbohydrates mostly. So again, proper caloric intake means proper glucose levels, which means proper energy generation.
When we don’t get enough calories in a day to keep up with our energy demands, this means our glucose stores are used up and no longer available to make ATP with. This isn’t necessarily a problem on its own however. Once our glucose stores are used up our bodies actually begin to break down fat. Fun fact, if one molecule of glucose makes 36 usable molecules of ATP, one molecule of fat (depending on the type of fat) can make well over 100 usable molecules of ATP. That’s awesome right? Yes it is!.. For a time.
Using up our glucose stores and switching to fat as our source of energy building is actually the method by which we lose weight when exercising. It tempered, this can be a great way to accomplish weight loss goals. But when we are talking about the female athlete triad we’re talking about taking this process to its extreme. So what happens when you regularly deplete your glucose stores and then continue to exercise intensely and for long periods of time while burning fat? Well, not surprisingly, you greatly diminish your fat stores.
Eventually, your body will begin to slow down its ATP generation, ultimately resulting in a diminished ability to replenish energy stores. It’s a simple battle of attrition and it’s one you’re going to lose. Eventually, this battle will result in a lower percent body fat (the percent of your body that is composed of fat). Now this may sound like a great thing. After all, bodybuilders do this all the time right? Yes they do! Some bodybuilders drop to as low as 3-4% body fat using this method of fat burning. AND IT’S NOT HEALTHY! Whether your a bodybuilder or a dancer, side effects of low percent body fat include but are not limited to; increased susceptibility to serious heart problems, SEVERELY DIMINISHED ENERGY LEVELS, feeling like you’re constantly cold, poor muscle healing post exercise, poor mood, HORMONAL IMBALANCES, increased prevalence of sickness, OSTEOPOROSIS and many many more!
We need to understand that while we may see these dramatically low levels of body fat as attractive in social environments, the health ramifications of these imbalances are serious. And this is just the beginning of our discussion of the female athlete triad but this will serve as a good jumping off point to explain how low body fat leads to the other two sides of the triad. Next week we will continue the discussion by breaking down how a low percent body fat actually creates imbalances in hormone generation leading to loss of menstruation and how insufficient caloric intake leads to poor bone building resulting in young onset osteoporosis. This will be a three part series and in our third part we’re gonna tie everything together and talk about some unsettling statistics related to the incredibly high prevalence of female athlete triad amongst bio-sex female dancers. So stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, this week’s dancer shout out goes to Nova Gaffney. Nova began dancing when she was 4 years old and is originally from Sussex County, Delaware. She is an Apprentice with the New York State Ballet where she is in her first season with the company. Her past credits include the First State Ballet Theater in Delaware, the Burklyn Ballet Theatre in Vermont and Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aside from dancing professionally Nova also teaches ballet. Make sure to check Nova out this February when she appears in New York State Ballet’s Winter Virtual Performance. Tickets are on sale now at newyorkstateballet.org.
And remember, if you have any questions or topics you would like me to address here on the Dancer Blog comment below and let me know! Also if you want to help this community grow faster, please like and share this blog on Facebook and Instagram. Until next time!