This month, the IFMA Medical Commission gives us a special insight into the effect of the menstrual cycle on the body for female athletes.
During the menstrual cycle the female athletes body goes through many changes. While the male athlete is under the effect of one dominant hormone, the female athlete has a cycle of two different hormones that dominate at different times and perform opposite tasks on the body. The female hormones that are acting on their body can affect various aspects of the athlete physically and emotionally. Along with fluid retention, these hormonal changes can also affect mood, concentration and motivation. This natural physiological process is all part of the ‘master plan’ to continue the human race. To better discuss the effects of these hormones we will divide them into two different categories – hormones & weight and recommendations to counteract the potential weight increase. Firstly, we will start by addressing the effect of menstruation and hormones on the weight itself.
Hormones and weight
We all recognise that Muaythai is a sport where athletes compete in categories that are set up according to body weight. When the female body approaches the menstruation phase of its cycle, hormone changes occur.
- One notable effect of these hormone changes is the retention of fluid in the female body. This is called oedema and abdominal bloating.
- This may cause an average change of 500g to 2kg in an athlete’s body weight, resulting in movement of the weigh-in scale.
- The resulting weight gain generally has little to do with fat and muscle; it is related to the excessive fluid stored in the female body due to the hormonal changes.
- It is important to note that this is not an actual weight gain but is related solely to the oedema that occurs during the menstrual period.
Other notable changes that may occur include:
- Changes in the pattern of the athlete’s appetite. This can be because of hormonal or mineral balance or psychological reasons.
- Food cravings, in particular craving for sugars and carbohydrates.
- If these cravings are not controlled, it will bring about an unplanned increased calory intake.
- Additionally, an increase in carbohydrates will signal your body to store more water between its cells (oedema).
Recommendations to alleviate potential weight increase…
- Eat a Gluten free diet (as much as possible) a week before your period is due. This can help decrease fluid retention. Even small amounts of carbohydrates can keep extra water in the body. For example, food like bread, pasta and rice should be strictly under control during this week.
- Consume less salt and ready-to-eat processed food. Salt makes the body to retain more water (oedema). Be aware that many processed foods use salt as a preservative.
- Continue using your regular training pattern/plan. The more you train, the more fluids are circulated through the muscles to the kidneys , and this makes the athlete’s water intake move through the body more affectively.
- Investigate the use of natural (WADA safe) herbs. Especially ones which might taste good taken in water and will help increase the consumption of water and will supply a natural diuresis – make the body pass more water (urine).
- Be creative in the kitchen. Use delicious fruits, herbs and nuts to help control psychological food cravings for ready-to-eat high sugar products such as chocolates, or cakes etc.
- Increase your water intake by an extra 1.5L per day over an above your regular water consumption. Drinking more water does not mean more water will be stored in your body. The increase in water will signal your metabolism to speed up and reassure the brain that you have a good water supply, so there is no need to store extra . When your body is circulating the water through your kidneys, it pushes through the intercellular water that is locked into your body causing retention to end, in other words it flushes the water steadily through the body.
- Add more fibre food to your diet. Replacing carbohydrates and probiotics with vegetables will prevent your bowel movements from slowing down during the times of hormonal change (constipation will bring more weight control problems).
- Keep away from Diuretic tablets. There are many different brands! All are listed in WADA’s prohibited list as doping. When a diuretic is detected, even in small amounts, in an athlete’s urine, a 4-year ban will be legally enforced – from any sport activity, not just Muaythai. Never try this – it is not safe!
- Using hormone tablets to change the dates of your period or to regulate the overall effects of premenstrual tension (PMT). An individual’s reaction to taking hormone tablets will vary from athlete to athlete. Never use hormone tablets without proper medical assistance. As an athlete, the management of the effects of female hormones is your responsibility!
An athlete should trial and learn the best management of their own body and weight control during non-competition periods. It is not advisable to experiment with the effects of managing hormones and weight control methods during an important tournament. Especially if you have never tried it before.
Unfortunately, there is no tolerance for the extra weight gain for female athletes that struggle with water retention problems during their period. The rule book does not allow for any menstruation effects and therefore the referees are not able to give any allowance in the weight categories, for any reason. This is due to a person having no practical way to prove individual effects as they vary from athlete to athlete. A referee’s number one priority is the need to ensure equality for all female athletes.
Luckily research shows that the premenstrual tension symptoms are observed less in athletes than other females, and any symptoms observed range mostly from very mild to moderate. Considering the wide range of PMT (premenstrual tension) symptoms experienced by different female athletes.
Accepting the menstrual cycle as a natural normal body process and learning how to best counteract any effects in your own body is the best way to deal with the female hormonal changes acting upon an athlete during their menstrual cycle. The nine recommendations above will help an athlete to work through possible effects by paying a little more attention to diet and training and accessing available safe supplements in order generate a personalised weight control management programme.
By: Dr. Erdogan Aydin, IFMA Medical Commission