I’m very pleased to welcome a guest contributor to my blog this month, Dr Nicky Keay, who is a medical doctor specialising in sports endocrinology. Dr Keay has published many papers relating to sports endocrinology (the impact of hormones on performance) and is a regular contributor to the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) and the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine (BASEM). She will be organising and chairing the annual BASEM spring conference.
At the end of Dr Keay’s article, I have added some practical nutritional tips to help athletes avoid or recover from RED-S.
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) has developed out of the concept of the Female Athlete Triad (menstrual dysfunction, disordered eating and decreased bone mineral density) as it has become apparent that low energy availability, ie not eating enough calories to support training levels, has more widespread adverse impacts on health consequently performance in athletes than previously recognised. RED-S can impact both male and female athletes of all ages – if you are a male athlete, please do not stop reading!
Young developing athletes can be at particular risk of RED-S as this represents a time of growth and development, which entails many nutritional demands in addition to those to support training. This represents a time to set up the template for health into adulthood.
Why does RED-S occur?
RED-S is particularly prevalent in sports where low body weight confers a performance advantage or for aesthetic reasons. For example: long distance running, triathlon, gymnastics, dance and cycle road racing. However, RED-S could also occur not as an intentional strategy to control body weight, but rather during cycles of increased training load where periodised nutrition has not been synchronised with the increased demand on the body.
What is RED-S?
Fundamentally there is a mismatch between food intake (in terms of energy and micronutrients) and the demand for nutrition required to cover expenditure, both for training and for basic “housekeeping” tasks in the body. If there is insufficient energy availability, then the body switches into an energy saving mode. This “go slow” mode has implications for hormone production and metabolic processes, which impacts all systems throughout the body 1.
The reason why RED-S was originally described as the Female Athlete Triad is that in women the “energy saving mode” involves menstrual periods being switched off: a pretty obvious external sign as all women of child bearing age should have periods (apart from when pregnant). Low oestrogen levels have an adverse effect on bone health, resulting in decrease in bone mineral density. This effectively renders young women at increased risk of both soft tissue and bone injury, as seen in post-menopausal women.
As described in the IOC statement published 2014 in British Journal of Sports Medicine 2, the Female Athlete Triad is now recognised as just the tip of the iceberg. Disruption of hormone levels does not only adversely impact menstrual periods and bone health. There are knock on effects impacting the immune system, cardiovascular system, muscles, nervous system, gut health and the list goes on. Importantly, this situation is also seen in male athletes: for example, whether or not a sport is weight bearing, which traditionally improves bone health, in RED-S the predominant effect of disrupted hormones is to decrease bone density, leading to increased fracture risk.
What is the significance of RED-S?
Do these effects of RED-S matter? Yes: there is a detrimental effect on not only health, but on all elements of sports performance. These include an inability to improve as expected in response to training and increased risk of injury. In the long-term there are potential implications for health with inability to reach peak bone mass for young athletes and at the other end of the scale, irreversible bone loss being seen in retired athletes.
Here is a summary of the potential impact of RED-S:
- Endocrine dysfunction: decreased training response
- Metabolic disruption: decreased endurance performance
- Bone health: increased risk bone stress injuries
- Decreased functional immunity: prone to infection
- Gut malfunction: impaired absorption of nutrients
- Decreased neuromuscular co-ordination: injury risk
- Psychological impact: inability to recognise risk developing RED-S
As you can see, these adverse effects are all relevant to performance in endurance sport.
What to do if you are concerned you may have RED-S?
- Women: even if your adult weight is steady, if you are a female athlete of reproductive age whose periods have stopped, then do not ignore this! In the first instance, you need to exclude any other causes (for example polycystic ovary syndrome and other hormone issues) in conjunction with your doctor. Then take a look at how you are eating in line with your training load – see the nutritional considerations section below.
- Men: if you are a male athlete struggling to improve sport performance, then review both your training load and your periodised nutrition and recovery. If the cause is RED-S then do not wait until your sport performance drops or you get injured before taking action. You may also want to consider having your testosterone levels measured to check that these are in the normal range.
- Ensure an adequate energy intake. Use My Fitness Pal or a similar app to track your food intake over the course of week. On any day when you train, if you are consuming fewer than 2500 calories as a male endurance athlete and 2000 calories as a female endurance athlete, your intake is likely to be inadequate as these are the guidelines for the general population. If you are taking in fewer than 2750 calories (male) or 2250 calories (female) on a day when you are training for two hours or more, you are likely to be at increased risk of RED-S. Use this data to learn more about appropriate food choices and serving sizes, and introduce some changes to increase your intake in line with your training load. But I do not suggest using apps like these on a long-term basis as they may encourage an unhealthy obsession with your food intake.
- Focus on nutrient density. Make good quality food choices to help you get enough vitamins and minerals as well as carbohydrates, protein, fat and fibre. Try to eat fresh, minimally processed foods rather than too much packaged food, including 3-5 servings of vegetables and 2-3 pieces of fresh fruit each day.
- Avoid excluding foods, whole food groups or following ‘fad diets’. Unless you have a genuine allergy or a diagnosed medical condition such as coeliac disease or lactose intolerance. Or you have been advised to avoid certain foods by a dietician or other well-qualified nutrition practitioner to help manage a health condition such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. If you are vegetarian or vegan, see my blog here for tips on ensuring a well-balanced approach.
- Periodise your carbohydrate intake in line with your training. Increase your intake of starches and sugars (including vegetables and fruit) on your heavier training days. A low daily carbohydrate intake might be in the range of 2-4 g/kg of body weight. This is OK for lower volume training days, but should be increased to 5-8 g/kg when training for 2-3 hours or more in a single day. Again, use an app like My Fitness Pal for a week to help you assess your carbohydrate intake. If you are experiencing RED-S, avoid following approaches like fasted training or low carb-high fat diets (LCHF) due to potential adverse effects on hormones.
- Pay attention to your recovery nutrition. Consuming 15-25g of protein and 45-75g of carbohydrate in the hour after exercise, whether as a snack or as part of a meal will help you to each your energy intake goals, restock your glycogen stores for your next training session and protect lean muscle mass.
Dr Nicky Keay BA, MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, MRCP, medical doctor with expertise in sports endocrinology, offering a private endocrine advisory service to athletes. For further details please visit https://nickykeayfitness.com/endocrinology.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk
Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017
2 Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen J, Burke L, Carter S, Constantini N, Lebrun C, Meyer N, Sherman R, Steffen K, Budgett R, Ljungqvist A. The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad-Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). Br J Sports Med. 2014 Apr;48(7):491-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24620037