Mar 042014
 

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It’s expected. It’s written about, talked about, advised about.. lamented to anyone who would understand (ie:other hikers) .. When you do a long trail, word is you’re going to suffer a bit after you return home. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does to enough people that I would classify it as a genuine phenomena. There have been hikers very crippled with depression, exhaustion, and anxiety post-trail,  recklessly making as many changes as they can in their lives to remedy their intolerable states of being.There have been some that have taken their own life. It’s real and it’s difficult. And it goes beyond the scope of just needing some friendly support to get through it (though of course that is also critical).

I went through it after doing the 890 mile Arizona Trail. I was busy enough on my return home, being a business owner and keeper of  labor-intensive parrots as well as preparing for a move to Scotland, that I could distract myself away from the despair of it. With time (and new excitement), I recovered. In 2012 I went through it very majorly after walking 700 miles of the PCT and then suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhagic stroke. It was my first experience of having a crippling level of alternating depression and anxiety. I was told it was par for the course with strokes and expected it. It didn’t necessarily make it easier, but it at least kept me from attaching a “story” to the sadness and to let it heal as a purely physical problem, like having the flu for a long long time. I recovered.

It happened again after my 2013 thru-hike of the PCT. I immediately feared that I had created some sort of regression in my stroke recovery by exerting an insane amount of stress on my body by hiking for six months, but that didn’t make any sense. I was fine on the trail. If I were regressing, it would’ve happened on trail. But the exhaustion and depression felt extremely similar to my state of being after the stroke and I declared it chemical. I started to research it and developed a theory about it, and a way of dealing with it.

Thru-hiking a long trail is the equivalent of running a full marathon every single day for six months. It’s an enormous amount of exertion and exhilaration maintained for a long enough period of time that the body begins to compensate for it chemically, the general pattern being that the stimulus triggers oversecretion and/or overproduction of a neurotransmitter or hormone.  To maintain homeostasis, the nervous system and/or endocrine system reduces the number (or in some cases sensitivity) of receptor sites.  Whatever the hormone or neurotransmitter is supposed to do, it does less of.  We become tolerant of the endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline, etc.  We would need more of the same stimulus to get the same feeling or physiological effect. And when we get off-trail, our receptors are so desensitized that normal levels of activity won’t create even a feeling of okayness, let alone the exhilaration we’ve been used to for six months. Time will re-sensitize those receptors, but there are things to do in the meantime so you don’t suffer in the process. Here is what helped me.

First and most important were the things that take effort, not easy when you don’t want to get out of bed. These were the standard depression advice strategies that worked for me:

  • Eat very very well. Salmon, berries, dark greens, kefir, black beans, etc. Stay AWAY from excessive sugar and alcohol.
  • Exercise. Like crazy. Outside.
  • Sleep. Like crazy. (outside is nice here too)
  • Be around people that have that twinkle you’ve come to love in fellow hikers. Better yet, be around fellow hikers.
  • Realize that you are not crazy, permanently impaired, dysfunctional, or somehow not able to cope with societal world relationships, careers, and demands. Realize that you are dealing with a mostly physical condition and don’t attach a “story” to it. Keep it as unemotional as you can possibly manage. Long trails in the wilderness are life-changing experiences, and you will not lose that life-change if you relax and wait until you feel more normal before making extreme decisions about who you are and what you’re going to do. You are changed. Let yourself heal before you express that change.

Okay, all that is simply not enough. I’m sure because I tried it. But what made it enough was the addition of some hardcore supplementation. I went from “awful” to “excellent” VERY quickly once I got the right formula down. As time goes on I will begin to omit things from daily use, as I have no desire to create dependency, psychological or actual. But I am helped .. and able to be enthusiastic about all of the amazing experiences I just had and who I am because of it, instead of rolling around in bed hoping I get enough energy to take a shower this day. It’s priceless.  I offer my regime in hopes that it will inspire you to do some research and experimentation of your own. My body is wayyyyy different from yours. For example, I’m extremely sensitive to stuff. And I had a brain hemorrhage a couple of years ago so my chemistry is a little different. Doing some forum stalking and reading about “nootropics” and “dopaminergics” will get you started. I’ve spent HOURS. And here’s what works for me:

In the AM before food but with coffee:

  • 500 mg ALCAR (L-Carnitine)

Morning with food:

  • 2 Omega 3 Oil capsules
  • Source of Life Food-Source Vitamins (high B vitamins)
  • 500 mg Ashwaganda
  • 250 mg rhodiola rosea
  • 350 mg N- Acetyl-Tyrosine
  • 250 mg Aniracetam (there are MANY racetams, this one works the best for me and this is a very low dose)
  • 350 mg Alpha-GPC (this or another choline source should be taken with racetams)
  • 200 mg Phosphatidyl serine

Afternoon with food:

  • I repeat everything but the Aniracetam and the Alpha-GPC because they stimulate me too much

Night before bed:

  • 325 mg Magnesium powder
  • 3 mg. melatonin
  • 200 mg 5-HTP

As needed:

  • 300 mg sulbutiamine

I have other things to experiment with, but approach it very cautiously. Because something isn’t a prescription only substance doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful or potentially synergistic with other things in dangerous ways. I cross reference everything before giving it a test run. I am positive that it supports being a healthy happy person (even outside of the wilderness) way better than antidepressants would.

Explore and comment please. I’m still in the discovery phase.

PS- Most of these supplements can be purchased very inexpensively from Health Supplement Wholesalers. No, they aren’t paying me to tell you that.

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  17 Responses to “My Notes on Post Trail Depression”

  1. Your theory of the physiological effects of thru-hiking is BRILLIANT. I’ve been working out something similar in my brain these last few months. This is, like, a real thing. Thankfully, five-months post-trail, I’m finally starting to feel ok again, or at least well enough to be able to tell the difference between a negative feeling that actually has a story (I don’t like my job or where I’m living, for example) and a negative feeling that’s just post-thru-hike depression. I kind of wish I’d had these awesome hippy treatment suggestions back in October but I’m through the worst of it now and hopefully these suggestions can help future thru-hikers! Someone needs to write a guide to this. Like a little pamphlet or ebook. And put a big stack of them at Manning Park. Or in the monument at the northern terminus… thanks for writing this!!!

  2. Thanks Weeds:) I’m so happy to hear you’re doing better. I’m already taking fish oil and b vitamins, eating crazy clean, and living for the gym. Now I’m going to get my butt over to the store and see if I can buy some extra help finding the peace and happiness I know I have somewhere inside me! 2014ers take note! I agree with Carrot, wish I had been taking this stuff in October and November when the darkness was eating my soul! Sorry you had to dig yourself out from under that weight, thank you for sharing your struggle and discovery!

  3. Yay! Hippie-drugs to the rescue! 😀

    Maybe I have it easier because I don’t actually “like” hiking. I enjoy the places it takes me, the challenge of doing something difficult that few other people do, and the amazing people who are just as crazy as you are.

    But I don’t like the actual physical act. You know, all the walking. With a pack. Up and down mountains. It’s hard, and at any moment I’d rather just sit down and eat some food. Preferably ice cream but I usually just settle for whatever snacks I happen to be carrying. Maybe that’s why I’m plugged-in to my iPod so much: because I need something to do while I’m just walking.

    So maybe the trick is to not “like” hiking? Probably not. If you get a constant sense of joy and amazement out of hiking, you probably shouldn’t turn that off. Of course, if that sense of joy and amazement is still there when you’re cold, wet, hungry, tired, dirty, and covered in mosquitoes … there might be something wrong with you.

    Or you just might be the world’s happiest hiker.

  4. you continue to amaze me Kim, and it’s great to read your blogs. Be sure and let me know when you make it across the pond again. You had a cameo in my dreams the other night…..it seems like every night I have a bunch of different people show up, so it must have been your turn! Hasta la vista. G

  5. Thanks for the post! I am off for my first official thru-hike after I graduate in June. I’ll have a masters’ degree in nutrition and just wanted to share that I have recently learned of the amazing effects of a diet without any animal products for depression. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and seeds can work wonders without the annoyance of having to take multiple pills every day. http://nutritionfacts.org/…/fighting-the-blues-with…/ http://nutritionfacts.org/video/improving-mood-through-diet/ http://nutritionfacts.org/…/the-best-way-to-boost…/

  6. That’s a very impressive list of supplements. However, how dan you know which of them actually helped? How can you be confident that you have the right mix of all these different substances? How will you know what to discontinue, and when?
    It sounds like you are careful and cautious so probably are doing yourself no harmf. Others might not be so careful, or spend a lot of money trying to find the “right” combination. I am glad you are feeling better but believe that in general people are better off living a healthy regimen, giving the body time to readjust and not resorting to methods like these. It may be that the feeling of being pro-active, of doing something to counter the depression effect, was at least partly responsible for improvement.
    In conclusion, people should try other approaches. Healthy living, plus join a new exercise class, or take a nutritional cooking class, or find a walking partner, etc.! But give it time, these things take time…

  7. Thanks for this. I followed a link from Carrot’s facebook post. It is wonderful to see this topic discussed, and to hear your perspective on it. It’s definitely hard to cope with the dramatic lifestyle changes when getting off the trail. I think it makes a world of difference to look depression/anxiety as a physical ailment that your body will readjust, rather than placing the burden on your conscious self to right what’s wrong. Personally, the mental space that the trail provided brought up a lot of emotional baggage and other existential questions and answers that changed me. I’ve found that going on long runs and meditation has been a good way for me to provide mental space and to navigate the crazy world of distractions.

  8. There are many lifestyle, dietary, and behavior changes that are CRITICAL in healing and integrating an experience like this. I understand, implement, and give due respect. But I’ve also noticed an incredible trend in readers desiring to discount the help and effect nootropics might have in this process. A kale salad wasn’t fixing it for me. It wasn’t. It was helping, but for reasons stated above, it wasn’t enough. Temporary supplemental assistance is not bad, dangerous, or placebo. It’s okay to give it a chance. For me, it was a VERY needed chance. And it worked.

  9. Great post! I have done four thru hikes and can attest that post-trail depression is real. However, it might be that just time and hope that heals the lucky ones.
    Before I started thru-hiking hiking seven years go I was talking a number of the supplements that you list, spending about $150/month. It was a pain in the ass to take some of them along with me when I was hiking. I stopped using them part way through one hike and have never gone back to them.
    I now only take a portion of an aspirin, and a 50,000 mg Vitamin D dose weekly ( for the past 5 years). My physicals are still good, blood work is great, except for a persistent vitamin D deficiency. I eat well when off the trail, but favor the usual junk while hiking. People are unique though, and if this has made a difference for you, good. There has been some reputable scientific reports that are recent that indicated that many supplements are useless.
    The problem a sort of faith issue. If you feel bad and take something and then you feel better after taking the stuff, how do you know it was the stuff that made you feel better? That’s where the science of placebos comes it.

  10. Thanks for your comment! I love to read studies about the different things I’m experimenting with and agree that there are studies that have shown some of their effects to be “inconclusive”. There are also plenty of reputable studies that show improvements and interactions. There are also some reputable studies that show that vitamins do nothing, anti-depressants do nothing, and that nicotine and alcohol are good for you. Eggs are bad for you, as well as milk, gluten, and red meat. Oh wait, no, it’s 2014, red meat and eggs are good for you again. The bottom line for me has been that when you put something in your mouth, your body will interact with it, chemically respond to it. Instead of just a blanket “taking of something” and wow I feel better, I have started components, adjusted dosages, dropped things for awhile, started again, etc. Some of it has made me feel as bad as others have good. My body is definitely interacting in tangible ways to what I’m putting in my mouth. It’s scientifically possible that I have a complex placebo circus going on in my head about it, but okay. It’s worked. And according to many many many people, the placebo circus has also worked for them. I’ll drop the regime when enough time has gone by to have readjusted to normal living. It does cost money (for me approx. $65 a month) and I simply don’t want to rely on supplementation to feel good. But right now, I’m sure it’s helping.

  11. I have had a lot of exposure to people who are quitting opiates, and the withdrawal they go through is physically very real, yet varies somewhat from person to person. I also have experience of a strong family history of depression, the kind that people make suicide attempts with. Serious. What I know about that condition is very much what you concluded about thru hiking, in that it’s a biochemical tidal wave that ascends over the months, and then rushes out quite rapidly when the daily miles stop. It’s a physiological withdrawal from one’s own endorphins and the norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin that accompany them. Many people with clinical depression cannot treat their chemistry with diet and excercise alone, especially in daily life with work and such taking up much of the time. For them, antidepressants are like a nearsighted person getting glasses: nothing feels or looks right without them.
    Great description of the plight of post hike yuck. I like the way you studied up and found a way to help the process resolve more efficiently. And, I have great awe and respect for those who can make that happen with little intervention at all. Happy trails to all. Auntie Mame AT ’08 (Springer to Loft Mtn)

  12. Thankyou for your article, its a godsend , iam currently living thru clinical depression and anxiety so my question is do you think another pct thru hike could eventually get me happy again. Its just when your depressed you cant see the light. Im hardly exercising so maybe a thru hike could be wonderful for me. Wld appreciate your thoughts , thx again. Matt

  13. An endorsement by Carrot is very strong indeed as she struggled mightily with post hike blues.

  14. Hi there, thank you for this article. Suffering from a bad post trail depression. It’s January, and it’s been 10 weeks ago since I finished my PCT sobo hike.
    I definitely don’t want any anti-depressants so I am going to try out all your supplements above…
    Except for the (ani)racetam and choline, I live in the Netherlands and these are on the black list here… apparently they are smart drugs and not safe according to EU law. Unfortunately…
    Something has to change. I feel just horrible… Trying to get a rhythm and have have have to do some exercising outside. Eat clean, no sugar, no alcohol.
    Thank you again for posting this. I feel not alone… Love, Arctic Fox

  15. Hang in there.. No, you are seriously NOT alone.. And when it gets overwhelming, go be with somebody, just about anybody. It takes time to get through it, with supplementation or not.

  16. Hi, I have just returned from a TruHIKE. It’s been six weeks, since I ran the PCT.
    I think everyone who makes this,is thinking about his life and is perhaps just before a few tweaks.
    You have to realize that you have gone through incredible changes.
    I left for the PCT my girlfriend because I just needed time for me and that was necessary.
    I had to think for the time, now I realize how important are my people around me and that I have a future with my girlfriend.
    I am a family man and will later have my own family.
    Just now is the big mountain in front of me and I have to fight again to climb up it, like the PCT. Step by step.
    This requires courage and strength.
    I feel the post-Trail -Depression, but you have to realize that not everything that comes in the last 6 months to a past and that’s fine too. I accept that I’ve changed and I need to transfer now on my life. I’m trying to create a balance between the things should I do to live in society and what I’m doing really passionate. This can give you no anti-depressants in the world.
    Healthy eating is definitely important here, but you don’t have to swallow pills for that.
    When It’s not getting better for weeks , than its better to go to a Doctor and try to explain what you feel.

    Love, Hope and a good Way to All

  17. Great Job and wonderful info! I’m a 2014 SoBo AT thru hiker, and in the same boat. But the trail did reveal a lifelong hidden issue most, if not all of us are unaware of, and it deals directly with severe nutritional deficiencies that lead to what I call Nuclear Anxiety and Black Hole Depression all balled up into one tight knot. After my hike, I was just not recovering, but progressively get in worse no matter what I did to regain my health. Long story short and bedridden for over a year, I happened upon the term Pyroluria, which then lead me to learn about a particular metabolic panel done to test directly for one’s methylation cycle….what? What is all this? NO Mainstream medical tests will reveal the true deficiencies OR overabundances one may have, thus creating a myriad of mental issues. As a “pyroluric” I was severely deficient in zinc and B6 due to a genetic (or this can be acquired due to oxidative stressors) condition where I’ve slowly but surely been excreting these vital nutrients from my tissues, brain, bones, etc. Usually this leads to one having an excessive amt of copper, but I didn’t. Next, this panel revealed I was severely undermethylated, more than twice above the upper ‘normal’ limit. In other words, my methylation cycle was not working, spinning, due to severe deficiencies in methyl donor amino acids that the body does Not make, and must be obtained by diet or supplementation. This leads also to a myriad of mental challenges….on the mildest side. Mine have been anything but mild!
    The life saver for me was learning about the pioneering works of Carl Pfeiffer and Bill Walsh; today known as Pfeiffer/Walsh Protocol. Walsh is still alive and I strong,y encourage anyone with ANY form of mental health issue, mile to severe: anxiety, depression, s.a.d, ADHD, autism. Bipolar, unipolar, to the extremes of schizophrenia, dementia , psychosis, to look up The Walsh Institute and read about the main Biotypes of Mental Illness. My family has been destroyed by these issues that mainstream medicine ignores, because if ignorance. Please do your own research because too many are suffering in silence. And what’s beneficial is that 95% or more of all “advice” give on the internet regarding supplements can be discarded! Because until you are tested with this specific metabolic panel, for starters, you will NOT know which supplements will work for your unique biochemistry, and in conjunction with other nutrients etc. a simple multivitamin actually does more harm than good in most cases! I had not a clue that B12, b3-niacin, B5, manganese, and every form of Folate, including the methyl donor folate and Omega 3’s were my biggest enemies, as an undermethylated (histadellia) person. On the other hand, If one is over methylated (histapenic) , SAM-E, inositol, methionine, and EPO, and popular antidepressants SSRIs are to be avoided at all cost.
    In addition to having methylation issues, one is likely to have toxicity of heavy metals, or copper overload, as I mentioned before. Also, being hikers, there is strong correlation with Pyrolurics being more susceptible to Lyme disease.
    So instead of merely chasing symptoms and putting a bandaid on any mental crisis, there is a way to get to the root cause, and most all can be treated with therapeutic doses of nutritional supplements PERSONALLY TAILORED to each unique individual. Though I live in Tx. My functional MD who is trained and practices solely in the Walsh Protocol, is out of Chicago, at Mensah Medical. Plenty of YouTube videos on both Walsh and Mensah team that explains simply and fully what I have spoken of in brief …emphasize “brief” and very incomplete, here.
    Please, I encourage anyone and everyone who is suffering or know someone who is suffering, to look up these people and these terms. The road to recovery takes time because of the detoxing that takes place with any protocol, but at least is is addressing and correcting the actual Problem, the deficiencies, and not merely taking a temporary feel good pill each day that could be causing more harm than good if taken long term.
    Happy healing, and Happier Trails.
    🙂

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