Optimal health: including female athletes! Part 1 Bones

webmd_rm_photo_of_porous_bonesIt is hard to dispute that women are underrepresented in medical research and certainly there are not many studies that include female athletes. Does this matter? After all whatever your gender the same physiological and metabolic processes occur. However the Endocrine system is where there are distinct differences in sex steroid production, which in turn have different responses in multiple target cells.

Although studies on changes in exercise performance in response to various dietary interventions and training regimes are often very interesting and well described, I am left feeling slightly uneasy when the subjects are all males. The cause for my concern is that the female hypothalamus-pituitary-ovarian axis is a particularly sensitive system with complex feedback loops and interacting networks.

Menstrual disturbance is not unusual amongst women in sport/dance where low body weight is an advantage. When a ballet dancer performs pointe work, putting full body weight through the big toe is hard enough, without extra load! Some women might consider it a convenience to be spared the hassle of menstruation. At age 24, I was perfectly fine never having had a period (primary amenorrhoea), or so I thought, being no more tired than other hospital medical colleagues working full time, studying for postgraduate medical exams and also involved in exercise training.

While working as a SHO at Northwick Park Hospital, I volunteered to be included in a study at the British Olympic Medical Association. The study was of female lightweight rowers and ballet dancers to look at VO2 max, percentage body fat and bone mineral density (BMD). I had been doing Ballet intensively (and obsessively) from a very young age, together with restricted fat and carbohydrate intake. Sounds a familiar scenario? Although I looked perfectly healthy (and I did not fit into a clinical condition requiring treatment), worked and danced well, my bone density was worryingly low. So if you are a female doing weight-bearing exercise or resistance training which loads the skeleton, these activities promoting osteogenesis will be negated if you are not ovulating and producing adequate oestrogens. The female athlete triad composed of disordered eating, amenorrhoea and low BMD was originally described by Drinkwater in 1984. However, once pathological states causing amenorrhoea have been excluded, in medical terms the female athlete triad did not necessarily constitute a disease state requiring intervention, rather subset of the “normal population”.

How significant is having low BMD compared to the age-matched population during your 20s? Could this even be viewed as a reversible adaptation to training, reflected in site specific differences in BMD according to sport? After all, when female athletes retire with decreased training “stress” and more “relaxed” diet, menses often resume and therefore does BMD also improve? This was the question I sought to answer in my study on 57 premenopausal retired professional dancers. Even with return of menses, if these athletes had experienced previous amenorrhoea of more than 6 month duration, then bone loss was irrecoverable. Current low BMD was also correlated to lowest body weight (independent of amenorrhoea) during dance career and later age of menarche. There did not appear to be any protective effect of being on the oral contraceptive pill. Constructing a model of BMD using multiple regression 33.6% of total variation in z (age matched) score for BMD at lumbar spine was accounted for by duration of amenorrhea, age at menarche and lowest body weight during dance career. So “athletic” hypothalamic amenorrhea rather than being a reversible, adaptive response has long term, irreversible effects on BMD.

Apart from bone metabolism, what other systems are impacted by mismatch of energy intake and expenditure in overtly healthy athletes? Are the endocrine and metabolic systems in male athletes also affected by subtle imbalances in training energy expenditure and dietary intake? What about young athletes? In my next blog I will explore the rationale behind the original female athlete triad now being described as part of Relative Energy Deficiency in sports (RED-S). The implications for current health and sports performance, as well as long term health in both adult men and women and young athletes.

For further discussion on Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of SEM come to the BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance

References

Keay N, Fogelman I, Blake G. Bone mineral density in professional female dancers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol 31 no2, 143-7, June 1997.

Keay N. Bone mineral density in professional female dancers. IOC World Congress on Sports Sciences. October 1997.

Keay N, Bone Mineral Density in Professional Female Dancers, Journal of Endocrinology, November 1996, volume 151, supplement p5.

Keay N, Bone Mineral Density in Female Dancers, abstract Clinical Science, Volume 91, no1, July 1996, 20p.

Keay N, Dancers, Periods and Osteoporosis, Dancing Times, September 1995, 1187-1189

Keay N, A study of Dancers, Periods and Osteoporosis, Dance Gazette, Issue 3, 1996, 47

Fit to Dance? Report of National inquiry into dancers’ health

Fit but fragile. National Osteoporosis Society

Your body your risk. Dance UK

From population based norms to personalised medicine: Health, Fitness, Sports Performance British Journal of Sport Medicine 22/2/17

Optimal Health: Including Male Athletes! Part 2 – REDs Dr N. Keay, British Association Sport and Exercise Medicine

Optimal health: especially young athletes! Part 3 Consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in sports Dr N. Keay, British Association Sport and Exercise Medicine

Optimal health: for all athletes! Part 4 Mechanisms Dr N. Keay, British Association Sport and Exercise Medicine

From population based norms to personalised medicine: Health, Fitness, Sports Performance

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“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. World Health Organisation 1948

There has been criticism of this definition, arguing that the word “complete” has opened the door to today’s more medicalised society. However, this trend coincides with increased volume of “patients” seeking optimal health, together with doctors who have a more extensive repertoire of medical interventions at their disposal. In a time-pressed society there is less opportunity for either patient or doctor to explore longer term adaptive measures and prevention strategies, which facilitate taking responsibility for your health. Fortunately Sport and Exercise Medicine became a recognised medical specialty in the UK in 2006. This encompasses population-based strategies for disease prevention outlined in the global initiative founded in 2007 “Exercise is Medicine“.

What has this got to do with sports performance? There are subgroups within the population, such as athletes already taking plenty of exercise. Elite athletes differ from the general population, due to superior adaptation processes to exercise, probably with a genetic component. So are the same “normal” population-based ranges of quantified medical parameters applicable?

This is precisely the issue that arose when I was on the international medical research team investigating the development of a dope test for growth hormone (GH). Crucially, exercise is one of the major stimuli for growth hormone release from the anterior pituitary. So before we could even start investigating potential downstream markers of exogenous GH abuse, the “normal” range for elite athletes had to be established.

In a similar way, are the “normal” ranges for other hormones applicable to athletes? In a fascinating lecture delivered by Dr Kristien Boelaert, Consultant Endocrinologist, it was explained that the distribution for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is affected by multiple factors, including illness, age and exercise status. So “normal” for the general population is not necessarily normal for specific subgroups.

The other issue, especially with the Endocrine system is that hormones act on a variety of tissues and so produce a variety of multi-system network effects with interactions and control feedback loops. Therefore symptoms of malfunction/maladaptation and subclinical conditions can be non specific. From a doctor’s perspective this makes Endocrinology fascinating detective work, but challenging when dealing with subgroups in the population who require a more intensive work-up and individualised approach.

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The vast majority of research studies involve exclusively male athletes, leaving female athletes under-represented (a recent study on heat adaptation in female athletes being a notable exception). Some areas of research, including my own, have been directed more towards female athletes in the case of female athlete triad, or Relative Energy Deficiency in sports (REDs). REDs is a more appropriate term as it really sums up the important points: male and female can both be affected and therefore should both be studied. There are subgroups within the general population who may not fit the “normal” range: REDs is not necessarily a clinically defined eating disorder from lecture by Professor J. Sundgot-Borgen (IOC working group on female athlete triad and IOC working group on body composition, health and performance).

No medical/physiological/metabolic parameter can be considered in isolation: in the case of REDs, it is not menstrual disturbance and bone health that are affected in isolation. For example, there is currently great debate about whether a low carbohydrate/high fat diet (ketogenic diet) can mobilise fat oxidation and potentially be a training strategy to enhance performance. Needless to say that a recent study contained no female athletes. Given that many female endurance athletes are already lean, potentially driving fat metabolism through diet manipulation may have an impact on Endocrine function, optimal health and hence sport performance. I understand that a forthcoming study will include female athletes.

So a continuum or distinct subgroups in the population? Clearly general medical principles apply to all, with a spectrum from optimal functioning, subclinical conditions through to recognised disease state. We now have evidence of distinct differences between subgroups in the population and even within these subgroups such as male and female athletes. We are moving into a world of personalised medicine, where recommendations for optimal health are tailored for individuals within specific subgroups.

For further discussion on Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of SEM come to the BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance

References

How should we define health?

Nobody is average but what to do about it? The challenge of individualized disease prevention based on genomics

Exercise is Medicine

Enhancing Sport Performance: part 1

Keay N, Logobardi S, Ehrnborg C, Cittadini A, Rosen T, Healy ML, Dall R, Bassett E, Pentecost C, Powrie J, Boroujerdi M, Jorgensen JOL, Sacca L. Growth hormone (GH) effects on bone and collagen turnover in healthy adults and its potential as a marker of GH abuse in sport: a double blind, placebo controlled study. Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. 85 (4) 1505-1512. 2000.

Wallace J, Cuneo R, Keay N, Sonksen P. Responses of markers of bone and collagen turover to exercise, growth hormone (GH) administration and GH withdrawal in trained adult males. Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 2000. 85 (1): 124-33.

Wallace J, Cuneo R, Baxter R, Orskov H, Keay N, Sonksen P. Responses of the growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like factor axis to exercise,GH administration and GH withdrawal in trained adult males: a potential test for GH abuse in sport. Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 1999. 84 (10): 3591-601.

Keay N, Logobardi S, Ehrnborg C, Cittadini A, Rosen T, Healy ML, Dall R, Bassett E, Pentecost C, Powrie J, Boroujerdi M, Jorgensen JOL, Sacca L. Growth hormone (GH) effects on bone and collagen turnover in healthy adults and its potential usefulness as in the detection of GH abuse in sport: a double blind, placebo controlled study. Endocrine Society Conference 1999.

Wallace J, Cuneo R, Keay N. Bone markers and growth hormone abuse in athletes. Growth hormone and IGF Research, vol 8: 4: 348.

Cuneo R, Wallace J, Keay N. Use of bone markers to detect growth hormone abuse in sport. Proceedings of Annual Scientific Meeting, Endocrine Society of Australia. August 1998, vol 41, p55.

Subclinical hypothydroidism in athletes. Lecture by Dr Kristeien Boelaert at BASEM Spring Conference 2014 on the Fatigued Athlete

Optimal health: especially young athletes! Part 3 Consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in sports Dr N.Keay, British Association Sport and exercise Medicine

Optimal health: including female athletes! Part 1 Bones Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sport Medicine

Relative Energy Deficiency in sport (REDs) Lecture by Professor Jorum Sundgot-Borgen, BAEM Spring Conference 2015 on the Female Athlete

Effect of adaptive responses to heat exposure on exercise performance

Low Carbohydrate, High Fat diet impairs exercise economy and negates the performance benefit from intensified training in elite race walkers

Sleep for Health and Sports Performance

“Sleep.. chief nourisher in life’s feast,” Macbeth.

In my blog for British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine, I described improving sport performance by balancing the adaptive changes induced by training together with the recovery strategies to facilitate this, both in the short and long term.  alec0120-12x17

A recovery strategy which is vital in supporting both health and sport performance, during all stages of the training cycle is sleep.

Sufficient sleep is especially important in young athletes for growth and development and in order to support adaptive changes stimulated by training and to prevent injury. Amongst teenage athletes, studies have shown that a lack of sleep is associated with higher incidence of injury. This may be partly due to impaired proprioception associated with reduced sleep. Sleep is vital for consolidating neurological function and protein synthesis, for example in skeletal muscle. Sleep and exercise are both stimuli for growth hormone release from the anterior pituitary, which mediates some of these adaptive effects.

Lack of sleep can also interfere with functioning of the immune system due to disruption of the circadian rhythm of secretion in key areas of the Endocrine system. Athletes in heavy training, with high “stress” loads and associated elevated cortisol can also experience functional immunosuppression. So a combination of high training load and insufficient sleep can compound to disrupt efficient functioning of the immune system and render athletes more susceptible to illness and so inability to train, adapt and recover effectively.  Lack of sleep disrupts carbohydrate metabolism and recently found to suppress expression of genes regulating cholesterol transport. In overreaching training, lack of sleep could be either a cause or a symptom of insufficient recovery. Certainly sleep deprivation impairs exercise performance capacity (especially aerobic exercise) although whether this is due to a psychological, physical or combination effect is not certain.

Sufficient sleep quality and quantity is required for cognitive function, motor learning, and memory consolidation. All skills that are important for sports performance, especially in young people where there is greater degree of neuroplasticity with potential to develop neuromuscular skills. In a fascinating recorded lecture delivered by Professor Jim Horne at the Royal Society of Medicine, the effects of prolonged wakefulness were described. Apart from slowing reaction time, the executive function of the prefrontal cortex involved in critical decision making is impaired. Important consequences not only for athletes, but for doctors, especially for those of us familiar with the on call system in hospitals back in the bad old days. Sleep pattern pre and post concussive events in teenage athletes is found to be related to degree and duration of concussive symptoms post injury. The explanation of how sleep deprivation can cause these functional effects on the brain has been suggested in a study where subtle changes in cerebral neuronal structural properties were recorded. It is not known whether these changes have long term effects.

So given that sleep is essential not only for health and fitness, but to support sports performance, what strategies to maximise this vital recovery process? Use of electronic devices shortly before bedtime suppresses secretion of melatonin (neurotransmitter and hormone), which is a situation not conducive for sleep. Tryptophan is an amino acid precursor in the synthesis of melatonin and serotonin (neurotransmitter) both of which promote sleep. Recent research demonstrates that protein intake before bed can support skeletal and muscle adaptation from exercise and also recovery from tendon injury. Conversely there is recent report that low levels of serotonin synthesis may contribute to the pathogenesis of autoimmune inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. This highlights the subtle balance between degree of change required for positive adaptation and a negative over-response, as in inflammatory conditions. This balance is different for each individual, depending on the clinical setting. So maybe time to revisit the warm milky drink before bed? Like any recovery strategy, sleep can also be periodised to support exercise training, with well structured napping during the day as described by Dr Hannah Macleod, member of gold winning Olympic Hockey team.

In conclusion, when you are planning your training cycle, don’t forget that periodised recovery to compliment your schedule should be factored in, with sleep a priority recovery and adaptation strategy.

For further discussion on Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of SEM come to the BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance

References

Balance of recovery and adaptation for sports performance Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine

Sleep, Injury and Performance

Keay N. The effects of growth hormone misuse/abuse. Use and abuse of hormonal agents: Sport 1999. Vol 7, no 3, 11-12.

Wallace J, Cuneo R, Keay N, Sonksen P. Responses of markers of bone and collagen turover to exercise, growth hormone (GH) administration and GH withdrawal in trained adult males. Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 2000. 85 (1): 124-33.

Sleep and sporting performance

Young people: neuromuscular skills for sports performance

Prolonged sleep restriction induces changes in pathways involved in cholesterol metabolism and inflammatory responses

“Sleepiness and critical decision making”. Recorded lecture Professor Jim Horne, Royal Society of Medicine 16/11/16

What Does Sleep Deprivation Actually Do To The Brain?

Pre-Sleep Protein Ingestion to Improve the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise Training

Exercise and fitness in young people – what factors contribute to long term health? Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine

Serotonin Synthesis Enzyme Lack Linked With Rheumatoid Arthritis

“Science in Elite Sport” Dr Hannah Macleod, University of Roehampton, 6/12/16