Exercise-induced or athletic menstrual dysfunction (amenorrhoea, oligomenorrhoea, anovulation, luteal phase deficiency, delayed menarche) is more common in active women and can significantly affect health and sport performance. Although athletic amenorrhoea represents the most extreme form of menstrual dysfunction, other forms can also result in suppressed estrogen levels and affect bone health and fertility. A number of factors, such as energy balance, exercise intensity and training practices, bodyweight and composition, disordered eating behaviours, and physical and emotional stress levels, may contribute to the development of athletic menstrual dysfunction. There also appears to be a high degree of individual variation with respect to the susceptibility of the reproductive axis to exercise and diet-related stresses.
The dietary issues of the female athlete with athletic menstrual dysfunction are similar to those of her eumenorrhoeic counterpart. The most common nutrition issues in active women are poor energy intake and/or poor food selection, which can lead to poor intakes of protein, carbohydrate and essential fatty acids.
The most common micronutrients to be low are the bone-building nutrients, especially calcium, the B vitamins, iron and zinc.
If energy drain is the primary contributing factor to athletic menstrual dysfunction, improved energy balance will improve overall nutritional status and may reverse the menstrual dysfunction, thus returning the athlete to normal reproductive function. Because bone health can be compromised in female athletes with menstrual dysfunction, intakes of bone-building nutrients are especially important. Iron and zinc are typically low in the diets of female athletes if meat products are avoided.
Adequate intake of the B vitamins is also important to ensure adequate energy production and the building and repair of muscle tissue. This review briefly discusses the various factors that may affect athletic menstrual dysfunction and two of the proposed mechanisms: the energy-drain and exercise-intensity hypotheses.
Because energy drain can be a primary contributor to athletic menstrual dysfunction, recommendations for energy and the macro- and micronutrients are reviewed. Methods for helping the female athlete to reverse athletic menstrual dysfunction are discussed. The health consequences of trying to restrict energy intake too dramatically while training are also reviewed, as is the importance of screening athletes for disordered eating. Vitamins and minerals of greatest concern for the female athlete are addressed and recommendations for intake are given.