***Males: Proceed with Caution!
When I was in high school and college, I was envious of female runners who stopped getting their periods during cross country or track season. They were lean, fast and fit. No worries about crankiness, cramps or fatigue. I wanted this freedom, but no matter how lean or fit I got, I was like Old Faithful- every month, on the dot. Now that I am older (and hopefully much wiser) I realize that my regular cycle is a positive tribute to my healthy diet and lifestyle.
Amenorrhea is the clinical term for the absence of monthly menstruation. Primary amenorrhea occurs when a girl does not begin menstruating by age 16. Secondary amenorrhea occurs in women of childbearing age who normally have a monthly period, but have stopped menstruating for more than three or four cycles. This can be a cause of concern in which you should see your gynecologist.
Menopause and pregnancy are two natural occurrences that halt menstrual cycles. Abnormal causes of amenorrhea are poor nutrition, excessive exercise, losing too much weight, weight gain, eating disorders and too little body fat. Stress, anxiety, hormone imbalance, the use of contraception, endocrine disorders or reproductive disorders can also cause period cessation.
Most women with amenorrhea have inadequate fuel to support the menstrual process. It's important to note that this does not mean that a woman is incapable of having children. The reproductive process is one of the first systems, along with digestion, that can stop under famine-like conditions in order to conserve energy. Though the comfort of not having a period is enticing, the long-term side-effects are sobering. A loss of calcium from the bones makes the incidence of stress fractures three times higher and causes early on-set of long-term problems with osteoporosis.
The good news is that with proper nutrition, some causes of amenorrhea can be treated and prevented. The most important consideration is making sure you are consuming adequate calories. A general rule of thumb is to eat 15 calories for every pound of body weight. That means if you weigh 100 pounds, you would need to eat 1500 calories. This does not include the amount of calories burned during exercise. So if you run 5 miles, you would need to add an extra 500 calories and maybe even more if you have an active lifestyle. Consider taking a calcium and vitamin D supplement if you are not eating enough calcium and vitamin D-rich foods to care for loss of bone mineral density. A sufficient intake of protein and healthful fats is extremely important to spare muscles and absorb vitamins. Shoot for 60-90 grams of protein a day and at least 20% of your calories from healthy fats.
Be patient. It may take a while for your body to adjust and "re-fire" its systems. If you are struggling to balance food and exercise or have any concerns about your nutritional needs, consult with a Registered Dietitian for appropriate care. If several months pass and your period has not yet resumed, please see your physician to rule out any hormone or reproductive issues. Remember, you can still be lean, fast and fit while taking optimum care of your body!