“Don’t let anyone tell you that you are weak because you are a woman”, said Mary Kom, Indian Boxing Champion. A woman is strong because she chooses not to be weak. And a sportswoman chooses it more often.
The involvement of women in sports has increased greatly over the past decades, but not without their own cup of struggles. Apart from the strains and stress the sport offers, female athletes have to deal with “Can a woman handle the sport stress like the men athletes?”, and the accompanying glares of society and male athletes. Studies show that female athletes are under more psychological stress than men, and burnout sooner than men. And the effects of stress in female athletes are a handful of health disorders.
Stress and its effects on female athletes
Stress impacts athletic performance as well as the physiology of the female body. At its root, stress affects the hormonal balance of the body. This imbalance, in turn, takes its toll on the emotional health, fertility, and pH balance of the athletes. While these may be seen in less proportion in non-athletics, the effects are intensified in female athletics. Some of the effects of stress in female athletes are:
Amenorrhea: Many elite athletes, especially those belonging to endurance sports and gymnastics are required to be lean and at low weight. Lack of food intake coupled with intense practice levels causes cortisol (stress-inducing hormone) levels to rise. This inhibits the proper production of estrogen and progesterone, the menstrual cycle is affected, and the athlete loses her periods (amenorrhea). The Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) of cramps, nausea, and acne is visible with increased pain in athletes, especially when the cycles are irregular.
Bacterial Vaginosis: pH balance is subject to variation under stress. When exercises and workouts intensify, the increase in stress leads to vaginal pH imbalance and the female athletes contract bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial infection caused due to lack of Lactobacilli. Often this effect of stress in athletes is misunderstood for other reasons.
Female Athlete Triad: High psychological stress in females leads to oxidative stress which is a major risk factor for osteoporosis. Osteoporosis along with amenorrhea and disordered eating leads to Female Athlete Triad, says Physiopedia. When this condition is prolonged without any measures taken, these symptoms would become irreversible and have lifetime effects on the athlete’s health.
Urinary Incontinence in Female Athletes. The hypertonic pelvic floor is an effect of both physical and emotional stress in female athletes. Long workouts and practices, early vaginal tearing, and high levels of emotional stress and anxiety also induce stress in the pelvic floor muscles. Due to this pelvis tightening, female athletes are prone to urinary incontinence (loss of bladder control and leakage of urine). This affects the psychosocial sense of female athletes negatively.
Imbalance in Gland Secretions: The endocrine system is also adversely affected in female athletes due to the stress load. When under constant stress, the gland secretions are temporarily disturbed. The lack of Follicular Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH) prevents the regular release of ovum each month. This is followed by PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome). This is one of the most common effects of stress in female athletes.
It’s absolutely normal to stress about something we look forward to; indeed, it pushes us towards the goal. However, when stressed beyond the limit, it reverses the benefits and affects the performance. Hence, it is imperative that the stress be managed from the start, before it reaches levels of toxicity, lest the effects of stress are manifested much. Achieving stress-recovery balance on a day-to-day basis, and inclusion of healthy foods, recovery activities, and quality sleep in your routine helps to keep your stress under control.
When a woman or girl involved in sports undergoes these difficulties, it doesn’t make her less athletic, rather, a winner amidst struggles. Speaking of such private health issues was considered taboo even by the sports associations until some athletes like Anju Bobby George, the Indian Olympian athlete, Fu Yuanhui, the Chinese Olympic swimmer, and the British Tennis champ, Heather Watson opened up.
Female athletes are just like any other woman with their own struggles and limitations of which the above stress and its effects are a part. They stand out because their passion drove them to take that extra step they love. And that makes all the difference.
To every woman of wonder reading this, Fly high and touch the sky!