Depression And The Bodybuilder

It's both axiomatic and paradoxical that bodybuilders preparing for competition are malnourished. Learn the truth about depression!

"Oh-h-h-h! Woe is me!" Recognize that feeling? It's as common as dirt, according to experts -- and about as welcome. All of us get depressed from time to time, sure. But at what point should the garden-variety sadness all of us suffer occasionally be regarded as a problem?

And, perhaps more importantly, is depression a tear or misplaced stitch in the fabric comprising one's personality, or is it a legitimate, physically-based illness that may be treatable?

Bodybuilders (with their well known egos) may, on first reflection, seem less susceptible to the potentially mind-crippling ravages of self-doubt, melancholy and despondency than your average pencilneck. You know, the old "C'mon Life! Hit me with your best shot!" attitude that all tough-minded athletes seem to possess.

This kind of mental armour assists them in maintaining focus for the duration of their ascendency to sports honor. Maybe even until the heights of Olympia are conquered. That armor, fellow iron freaks, is naught but a tenuously fastened exoskeleton protecting an infinitely fragile id. And the eddy and swirls of gloom - precipitated by events only God fully comprehends -- inevitably seep in.

Depressive states vary by name, symptomatology and origin. In recent years, especially in the past year, scientists have made mighty strides in uncovering many of the causes and a growing number of treatments and cures for depression. And, one factor has consistently emerged in the research literature on depression -- it's an illness.

That means that it can be treated and controlled. The day is forthcoming for a cure of the more serious forms of depression. Less serious forms of depression appear now to be entirely curable.

What Is Depression?

Think of depression as a "hollow" in an otherwise smooth surface. Sort of like the Grand Canyon, with some gradual drops and some precipitous ones. Think of depression as akin to being lower than a snake's belly. Or, more "deeply" poetic, lower than the proverbial whale dung on the bottom of the deepest ocean.

Depression is typically thought of in those terms. Extreme feelings of sadness, despondency, dejection, emptiness, lack of worth or purpose -- often growing past the bounds of reason and reality, on to the point of suicide -- are all symptoms of this illness.

It would be a mistake for you to confuse these symptoms with the full definition of depression. To do so would perpetuate the same misconception of years past that depression is a disease of the mind.

It is not. It is a disease which affects the mind. To fully define this common malady, you must also identify the root causes of depression. But, before you get bored with this stuff, let me direct your focus to my intent in writing about depression. I see depression far more frequently among competitive body-builders than any other class of athlete. And there are some good reasons for this seemingly paradoxical observation, which I shall point out later.

What Causes Depression?

Let's go back to the Grand Canyon -- it seems a better "jumping-off" point for this discussion than that nasty ocean floor.

Most people who suffer from depression aren't depressed all the time. Usually they go in and out, sometimes precipitously, and sometimes gradually. Sometimes they sink low, low, lower, and sometimes they don't. Understanding the psychological and biochemical correlates to these variable mood swings will give you a clearer idea of the many treatments available for depression.

In the past, scientists recognized that exercise -- particularly aerobic exercise -- often seemed to be a powerful antidote for depression. Listed were these explanations:

  • Exercise distracts sufferers from their suffering because it's enjoyable
  • Exercisers reap social reinforcement for their efforts
  • Depressed people see a measure of improvement in their physical condition, which gives them a "lift" in mood
  • Depressed people benefit from exercise because they are doing something for themselves and by themselves, thereby giving them a sense of power and control
  • Exercise improves circulation of blood to the brain, thus oxygenating this powerful organ
  • Exercise causes the production of morphine-like endorphins and enkephalins which lift the mood as might other drugs
  • Neurotransmitters associated with the depressed state (or states of well-being) are stimulated or blocked (e.g., norepinepherine and other amine neurotransmitters).

None of these explanations of why exercise seemed to help gave any clue as to what caused the depressed state in the first place, however.

It would be fallacious to argue that the lack of physical conditioning predisposes one to depression. Also, exercise only seemed to work part of the time, and only with certain individuals, in reducing or controlling depressive states.

A love affair gone bad, job-related stress, the death of a loved one, overwork, social isolation; all seem to be causative factors in plummeting a person headlong into a depressive state. But are such external events capable of being the prime causative?

Scientists now recognize that mood disorders are a result of complex interactions between a variety of biochemicals, including neurotransmitters, hormones, and many dietary cofactors such as the amino acid L-tryptophan, and vitamins C, B-12 and B-6.

And, to make matters more complex, there is a decided hereditary component to depression. Locked inside some strand of DNA (or a combination of loci on different chromosomes) a genetic code predisposes that person to an easier triggering of whatever mood shifts and/or bodily functions initiate the depressed state.

For example, it's well known by now that sadness, happiness, anger, and other such states of mind are accompanied by vast biochemical changes inside the brain. Some of these biochemical changes are becoming more and more understood, thanks to psychiatry's breakthrough discoveries of late.

In some individuals, the biochemical changes associated with stress, grief, or other such external events, become runaway, assumably due to genetic predisposition, drug abuse, infection or disease, nervous system disorder, allergy (especially cerebral allergies), or inadequacy of dietary intake or sunlight. Drugs, exercise, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and even intense light therapy and other treatments all have the net effect of controlling the runaway biochemical response.

Diagnosing Depression

According to The American Psychiatric Association, depression is diagnosed when at least four of the following symptoms persist for two weeks or more:

  • A marked increase or decrease in appetite accompanied by significant weight changes
  • Insomnia or excessive sleepiness
  • Hyperactivity or hypoactivity
  • Loss of interest in sex and/or other activities typically regarded as pleasurable
  • Reduced concentration, thinking ability, and recurrent thoughts of death and/or suicide
  • Feelings of worthlessness, guilt or self-reproach.

Guilt feelings or feelings of inadequacy may not be overtly apparent. That is, the person experiencing them may hide such feelings from others. However, attendant behavior most often becomes apparent to others. These behavioral changes frequently include:

  • Withdrawal from normal relationships
  • Overreacting to the normal irritations of daily life
  • Frequent crying spells
  • Constipation, headaches, gastric upset, sexual dysfunction, anorexia, insomnia, early morning waking and many other (unusual) physical symptoms. Severely depressive patients frequently:
  • Hear voices accusing them of unpardonable sins
  • See visions of dead friends or relatives
  • Feel that someone is watching them
  • Suffer from delusions of sinfulness, worthlessness or incurable diseases.

These symptoms range from mild to severe, and are certainly nothing to take lightly at any level of intensity. It's advisable for depressed individuals -- during a more lucid moment -- to seek professional assistance. You can't fight the fight alone.

Bodybuilders And Depression

It's both axiomatic and paradoxical that bodybuilders preparing for competition are malnourished to the point of sickness. Their strange and ritualistic eating behaviors, borne by naught but whim, and propagated in myth alone, are believed to be just and proper precompetition necessity.

When are you going to learn? Months of muscle-building, attitude adjustment, fat-reducing, nutritional planning and supplementation constitutes proper preparatory technique. Crash dieting is not an acceptable component of scientific contest preparation!

The mythic beliefs about what constitutes good nutrition, attitude and behavior among some bodybuilders can -- and does -- create a biochemical atmosphere conducive to the onset of a depressive state.

Consider The Following

  • Overindulgence in raw or lightly cooked egg whites can cause depression. Raw egg whites contain a protein which binds to biotin, making that important vitamin unavailable to the body.
  • Crash diets often severely limit the amount of vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine) available to the body. Since B-6 is a metabolite of tryptophan, and since tryptophan is shunted into making more B-6, little is left for the manufacture of serotonin, a neuro-transmitter which, in times of low supply, is implicated in depressive states.
  • Crash diets also often severely limit vitamins C and B-12 (cyanocobalamin), deficiencies of which can cause depression.
  • Sad but true, many obsessive bodybuilders still cling to their abusive practices of shotgunning different drugs into their systems. Many of these drugs -- especially those which alter estrogen and other hormonal levels -- interact to produce depression.

Examples are: 1) amphetamines, 2) human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), 3) L-DOPA, 4) combinations of estrogen blockers, steroids, amphetamines, or other drugs which also cause variable and unpredictable interactions, some of which can involve depression.

When such bodily abuse is combined with the stresses of training and -- ultimately -- the tragically common happenstance of not winning the contest (there can be ONLY one winner), you have a somatic and psychic potpourri of circumstances which are all-too conducive to depression.

What Are The Alternatives?

As with most illnesses, depression can be prevented. Sure, there are treatments. There are, in some instances, outright cures. But by far the best alternative is to avoid depression in the first place.

  • Ensure that your diet is well balanced
  • Ensure that your diet is fortified with good quality vitamins and minerals
  • Avoid the abusive drugs commonly used in some bodybuilding circles
  • Foster a lifestyle that is fun-filled and rewarding
  • Avoid unnecessary stresses (mental and physical) that so often accompany today's frenetic pace
  • Having job problems? Love partner problems? Financial problems? SOLVE them! One (often unspoken) way to solve such problems is to simply get rid of the source!
  • When you begin to notice symptoms in yourself or in someone close to you, DO SOMETHING ABOUT THEM!

That will usually involve seeking professional help. Nipping such problems at the bud is the best way to avoid future problems. And, a full-blown case of depression is one problem you certainly don't need!