Is Adrenal Fatigue Related to the Pros and Cons of Youth Sports?

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


The pros and cons of youth sports and adrenal fatigueResearch strongly suggests there are about 45 million young people involved in some form of youth sports in the U.S. annually. This means about 75% of the families in America have at least one school-age child involved in this pastime. How many of these families consider the pros and cons of youth sports activities?

Most likely, not very many do on a deliberate basis.

Even though there are many positive aspects of participation in youth sports, there is an equal number of negative ones. And both of these categories appear to have some connection to adrenal fatigue syndrome (AFS), either directly or indirectly.

AFS is that health condition that can result from your body’s natural response to stress. Stress in any form sets in motion a cascade of hormones and other biochemicals that result in the adrenal glands secreting cortisol, the stress-fighting hormone, along with other hormones to deal with the stress. Once the stress is gone, your body returns to a state of homeostasis and the adrenals rest. However, in our stress-filled world, more and more stress hits, leading the adrenals to be overwhelmed by the demand. This ultimately leads them to become fatigued, unable to secrete needed hormones. This is the beginning of the flood of symptoms related to AFS.

Unfortunately, conventional medicine doesn’t recognize AFS as a genuine health condition. This results in physicians not knowing about the condition and thus not being in a position to adequately deal with it. Most conventional medical practitioners focus on symptoms or a single organ and work to remediate the symptom or organ only. A more comprehensive approach is found in the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response. This approach allows healthcare practitioners to look at six interdependent organ systems and the ways symptoms affect each one. What happens to one of these organ systems has resulted in the others, as well. This allows for more effective remediation efforts and allows the root causes of symptoms to be handled.

In general, the benefits of physical activity for children are obvious. Their participation early in life sets the foundation for continued physical activity later as they age. Engaging in physical activity helps people of all ages deal with stress, the precursor and trigger for symptoms of AFS.

However, negative aspects of participation in youth sports also must be considered. A great number of children and adolescents drop out of participation for various reasons. In addition to the possibility of physical injuries, the psychological toll can be significant. This factor can lead to increased stress, making young people vulnerable to the effects of stress that add up over the years. Clinically, we have seen unfortunately an avalanche of AFS sufferers in recent years among teenagers and young adults. A large number of them also have deep participation in high-intensity sports and training for such.

Thus, the pros and cons of youth sports must be discussed and attention should be paid to them by parents and others. The following information can be a starting point for that kind of discussion by parents.

The Pros and Cons of Youth Sports

What follows is a general presentation of the pros and cons of youth sports. Each of the sections can be expanded considerably if more information is needed.

Health Pros

One area of the pros and cons of youth sports that no one would argue with is that of overall health. No one would dispute the fact of obesity becoming an epidemic in our country. And this epidemic affects both children and adults. One-third of children in the U.S. are overweight and lead sedentary lifestyles.

A definite positive for involvement in youth sports is the effect this participation has on getting children active and away from sitting in front of electronic media for long periods of time. Becoming more active physically has been found to significantly improve overall health, decrease the likelihood of developing diabetes and heart disease, increase academic performance, and improve psychological functioning.

For girls, being physically active helps prevent breast cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, and obesity when they become adults. It also has been shown to decrease the risk of early pregnancy, smoking, drug use, and suicide. Girls have also been found to have increased academic success, better self-confidence, and improved self-image.

One study from the British Journal of Medicine showed exercise to be as effective in preventing some chronic health conditions as medications.

Educational Pros

The pros and cons of youth sports and educationOne of the areas of the pros and cons of youth sports that doesn’t seem directly connected to sports is education. However, studies have shown that children as early as kindergarten age have increased cognitive skills through participation in organized sports. This kind of activity can result in increased ability to concentrate and focus, better attitudes and behavior in the classroom, and better-standardized test scores.

Other studies have shown students who participate in high school athletics are more likely to attend college and earn degrees. Beyond school, 94% of female corporate executives were active in at least one sport, according to a survey conducted with 400 respondents.

Psychological Pros

When considering the pros and cons of youth sports, the psychological effects must be factors. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third major cause of teenage deaths. The CDC also considers active participation in sports to be a significant way to decrease the risk of suicide among teens. This kind of physical activity has been shown to decrease the feelings of hopelessness that are often a major aspect of teen suicide. Possibly the greatest benefit of organized sports for teens is the presence of a strong support system. This kind of support counteracts the negative influences that often drive teens to consider suicide as an option.

Other areas in the psychological realm that are positively affected by participation in sports are leadership skills, greater self-confidence, better goal setting, and improved self-esteem. The quality of the coaching these young people get is a major factor in the psychological benefits they gain.

It is important to remember that any physical activity must be enjoyable for participation on a long-term basis to continue. If the activity is made more enjoyable for youth, they will be more likely to continue participation in their adult years.

Financial Pros

One of the areas not often thought about in discussions of the pros and cons of youth sports is the financial area. It has been estimated that the savings in healthcare costs and increased productivity through becoming physically active would be $28 billion in the U.S. alone. These savings and increased monetary gain through increased productivity could mean an extra $2500 per person annually if they would become active for 30 minutes five times per week.

Financial Cons

However, we must also consider the negative financial aspects when discussing the pros and cons of youth sports. Many families have to deal with the financial burden of participation in sports. They may give up vacations, savings, and family structure to enable their youth to participate in only one organized sport.

Some of the basic costs involved in youth sports include paying for uniforms, gear, travel expenses, fees charged by different sports leagues, and footgear. Many families find these expenses a terrific hardship.

The complexity of organized sports for youth today means families must have significant resources to put toward allowing one or more children to compete. Families with youth who participate in travel teams pay an average of $2266 per year for their youth to play. If the family happens to have a youth with exceptional skills, the cost may rise to $20,000 per year. This kind of cost necessarily limits those families with few resources available.

Equal Access Cons

The pros and cons of youth sports and gender rolesAnother important area that is seldom considered in discussions of pros and cons of youth sports is that of equal access. Minority children and those who live in less wealthy areas do not have equal access to space or equipment that other children do.
Geography and gender often play an important part in access to organized sports, also. Low socio-economic schools and neighborhoods have significantly fewer children participating in organized sports. Regardless of gains through Title IX over the past several decades, girls tend to participate in organized sports at a rate 2-6% lower than boys. This gender gap increases in adulthood, with 35% of males continuing to participate in sports activities compared to only 16% of females.

The region of the country in which you live also has an impact on participation of youth in sports. The South tends to have fewer opportunities for both males and females than states in the Northeast and Midwest.

Children with disabilities of any kind are also much less likely to participate in organized sports and to have less opportunity to do so. The rate for these children in participation is about 4.5 lower than for children with no disabilities.

Physical Cons

Any discussion of the pros and cons of youth sports must consider physical cons. With all of the physical benefits of active participation in sports, some people would be hard-pressed to come up with negative physical aspects. However, there are several.

Probably the most obvious of these physical cons is the increased likelihood of physical injury the more youth are active in sports. Over the course of a year, more than 3.5 million youth under 14 years of age are treated for sports injuries. The CDC reports that more than half of these injuries are preventable. Almost half of the sports injuries suffered by middle and high school athletes are due to overuse. A probable cause of these overuse injuries is poorly or untrained coaching.

These injuries occur at a time when youth are going through accelerated growth and the closing of the growth plates is taking place. This makes these youth very vulnerable to both traumatic and overuse injuries. These kinds of injuries result in 2.6 million emergency room visits by youth ages 5-24 every year.

Furthermore, if there is a genetic predisposition towards adrenal weakness. The added stress from sports may trigger adrenal fatigue down the road.

Psychological Cons

The pros and cons of youth sports and losingEven with the benefits psychologically for youth participating in sports, there also are cons that must be considered in a discussion of the pros and cons of youth sports. Accurate assessment of youths’ readiness for participation in sports should be a part of all athletic endeavors. If a youth isn’t ready for a certain level of athletics, yet is enrolled, he or she may experience psychological difficulties related to not being able to compete. This lack of ability to compete can lead to significant anxiety, depression, stress, and may ultimately cause the youth to drop out of sports activity.

The increased stress resulting from this feeling of failure can set the stage for continuing psychological stress. Low self-esteem, loss of self-confidence, and feelings of inadequacy can build to levels that persist into adulthood. The foundation then may be built for the beginnings of AFS in that youth’s adulthood.

Another part of the potential psychological cons in youth sports has to do with parental expectation. Many parents appear to be re-living their actual or imagined ‘glory days’ in athletics through their children. This puts tremendous pressure on the youth and may result in increased stress which can then negatively impact their performance not only on the athletic field, but in academics and other aspects of their lives as well.

These children may also be more prone to physical injury due to wanting to live up to their parents’ expectations when not able to do so. These injuries then can be devastating to the youth because they have let their parents down. Results may include lowered self-esteem and self-image.

The pros and cons of youth sports and coachingUntrained and bullying coaches also take a toll on the psychological status of youth in sports. Those who are untrained often miss signs of their athletes pushing themselves too hard and even participating in spite of injuries. Those who bully, who has a win at all costs attitude, are possibly even more dangerous. They deliberately cajole or shame their youth athletes into playing hurt and ‘sucking it up’ to push themselves to do more than they can actually do.

It’s possible for those youth who are exceptional athletes to suffer negative psychological effects, also. Parents should monitor their youth for attitudes that may indicate this kind of negative psychological effect. Youths that are stressed out physically or emotionally from sport participation may trigger pre-existing adrenal weakness. Those who are constitutionally weak are most at risk. A history of childhood infections, premature birth, low body weight, poor sleep habit, and increased food sensitivities are some warning symptoms of possible underlying homeostatic imbalance that may predispose the body to premature onset of adrenal fatigue.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Yes, there are both pros and cons of youth sports. And both relate to AFS and its potential development in adults. Youth sports can delay or promote the development of AFS.


Pros and cons of youth sports