The influencer experienced suicidal ideation and other mental health issues but her doctor refused to test her hormones because she was "too young"
Erica Lugo knew something wasn’t right.
The former Biggest Loser trainer was preparing for her second bodybuilding competition in September 2022 when she started feeling off.
“I was at posing practice with my coach and my body was buzzing, like there was adrenaline going through me,” Lugo, 36, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I was shaking and felt physically ill.”
At the urging of her husband Danny McGeady, Lugo went to her doctor, who diagnosed her with anxiety and prescribed Zoloft. It didn’t go well. “Within 4 days I was having suicidal ideation,” says Lugo. “I was sitting in my shower with visions of harming myself — it got very dark.”
She was switched to a different medication, one that “made me enraged,” she says. But her doctor insisted she stick it out and give the drugs a chance to help her anxiety and depression, even though Lugo insisted she had no reason to be anxious or depressed.
“I knew there was something else wrong with me — I'm in tune with my body, ” says Lugo, who's been in the fitness industry for 8 years. “I wasn't sleeping, I wasn't eating, I was having panic attacks. I couldn’t function. And this is coming from someone who's never once ever dealt with mental health issue, ever.”
Days went by with no improvement. “I was sad, hopeless, I felt unworthy, “ says Lugo, who lives in Dayton, Ohio, with her son Connor, 13, and stepchildren Jack,16, and Elise, 13. "I felt like I could just slice my skin off because I just needed to come out of my skin so bad — it's the worst feeling I've ever experienced."
Things bottomed out around her birthday in December 2022.
“It got to the point where I didn't feel safe by myself. I had to have my mom stay with me, my friend, my father-in-law,” she says. “One night with Danny I was like, ‘I feel really erratic right now, like I could go jump off a bridge. I don't want to, but I feel like I could.’ ”
McGeady drove Lugo to view the land they had purchased for their dream house. “I was crying. And he pointed to the land and said, ‘This is our future.’ And I said, ‘I don't think I'm going to make it to see it.’ ”
Her doctor suggested additional medications to counteract the side effects of her current regimen, but Lugo wanted other options. She started doing yoga, cold plunges, breath work, EMDR, talk therapy — anything to feel better. “I was paying out of pocket for all of this, and even as someone who has insurance and financial blessings, it was still hard for me to find, access and afford resources,” she says. “I remember feeling so sad and broken.”
Through it all, the influencer still had her social media image to maintain. “I'm pretending like my life is put together on Instagram — I'm still trying to be cheery and pump out workouts.”
Eventually a therapist helped her realize she had OCD, which had been exacerbated by Zoloft and contributed to obsessive thoughts. But she knew something else was at play.
“My mood had changed so drastically,” she says. “Things were heavy, everything was dark, the sun was shining, but it wasn't. I wasn't sleeping. I was having three periods a month and spotting in between. I was sweating the bed seven days before my period. I was gaining weight.”
She began to suspect that something was off with her hormones. As the owner of a functional health coaching company T4E she was able to ask one of the nurses to order her a Dutch test, an at-home hormone test.
“And sure enough, my progesterone was non-existent,” she says. “My testosterone was zero.”
That’s when she realized she was likely in perimenopause, even though she was just 36. (Most women reach menopause — confirmed when 12 months have elapsed without a period— between the ages of 40 and 58, but symptoms can begin years earlier.)
“I went to my obgyn and I said, ‘I think I'm in perimenopause. Something is going on with me.’ I told her my symptoms — mood swings, sweating the bed, gaining weight, multiple periods — and she was like, ‘Nope, you're too young. ’” Lugo asked her doctor to test her hormones to make sure. The doctor refused, saying she didn’t need it.
“She told me to go talk to a psychiatrist,” says Lugo. “I left that appointment crying because I was so upset that a doctor wouldn't listen to me."
So Lugo took matters into her own hands, showing the test results to a nurse practitioner on staff at her coaching company. “The NP took one look and confirmed that I was in perimenopause,” Lugo says. “She prescribed hormone replacement therapy, which I still take to this day.”
Slowly Lugo started to see results. By April 2023 she was feeling much better. “I found a new doctor who actually listens to me,” she says. She also follows a natural supplementation suggested by her health coach and continues to track her female sex hormones.
But there was one thing that still bothered her: She’d been gaining weight and was unable to lose it. Lugo, who lost 160 lbs. before becoming a trainer on the Biggest Loser, realized that the changes in her hormones necessitated a change in her workouts.
“What I was doing was no longer working for me: fancy HIIT training, intense muscle building workouts, spending two or three hours in the gym.”
She started to incorporate more low-impact, steady state cardio, like walking or swimming, to burn fat but keep muscle. “It’s exercise without spiking cortisol levels,” she says, adding that she still lifts weights 3 to 4 times a week.
“Since Biggest Loser, I'm probably 15 or 20 pounds heavier,” she says. “But for the first time in my life I'm actually okay with that because I'm functioning optimally. I wake up and I'm not tired. I have energy instead of that 3:00 PM slump. I don't even drink caffeine. My body is recovering better because I'm not spending six or seven days in the gym lifting weights like crazy. That was my whole identity for a long time.”
While she says she will always be grateful for her trainer experience on a national TV show, she is equally excited about accepting where she is now.
“I don't want to be stuck in that box anymore because that's not me anymore,” she says. “I know now that the older we get, the more we have to pay attention to our bodies and work with them, versus against them.”
As for her ordeal, she hopes it helps other women realize the importance of trusting themselves. "No one would listen to me until I started advocating for myself," she says. “I'm thankful I’m in a much better spot."
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