When is big too big, or even dangerously big? That’s the question some health experts are asking about excessive bodybuilding. Nicknamed bigorexia, obsessive muscle mass bulking can damage mental and physical wellbeing, especially when it involves dangerous drug use.
“Bigorexia is the term we’re using for men who are using substances like anabolic steroids and testosterone to get bigger and bigger,” says Dr. Damon Raskin, a board-certified internist with a specialty in men’s health. “The danger with taking supplemental testosterone is that it shuts off the body’s ability to make it. Depression is a common side effect; it can damage the liver too, as can anabolic steroids.” Other side effects aren’t pretty either: “There are changes in personality, including excessive aggression — 'roid rage' — and breast enlargement and acne.”
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Similar to anorexia, bigorexia often affects teens who are prone to insecurity or unsure of their physical identity.
“They see these athletes and hear about them using enhancement drugs, and they think it’s OK,” says Raskin, who says the issue is “becoming a big problem.” He says efforts to educate people about the disorder need to start in schools, and early. And a healthy home life helps too. “The person who is susceptible is someone who perhaps has a stressful home environment, low self-esteem, or been rejected by a girl or boy.”
Warning signs that parents and friends can watch out for include increased aggression and overdoing it on diet and exercise. “If you see rapid physical changes and someone develops massive biceps in four to six weeks, that’s not normal,” says Dr. Raskin.
As with any drug dependency and psychological disorder, it’s important to seek professional help.
“It’s necessary to get psychotherapy to find the underlying problems and treat them,” Raskin advises. “Then, we work to balance out hormones. Over time, taking these drugs can cause lasting physical damage, but if caught early enough an endocrinologist can usually reverse any problems.”
No drugs, no problem?
Even bigorexics who don’t use drugs to help build muscle mass are prone to health problems from excessive exercise and eating too many high-protein foods, like meat, eggs and supplements.
“Overexercising can damage joints, especially in teens when bones aren’t fully formed,” Raskin says. “Eating lots of protein causes kidney damage and kidney stones.”
For anyone trying to bulk up, take precautions, Raskin advises: “Bodybuilding should be done under careful supervision.”
Why not women?
Dr. Raskin says men are more prone to bigorexia because "men equate bigger muscles with more virility and masculinity." Women, he says, "tend to want be more slender and petite like their role models in the women's magazines."