The Shocking Statistics
Over 300,000 Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2010, the Veterans Administration estimated that at least 18 veterans commit suicide every day, making suicide the leading cause of death in the military, ahead of combat and vehicular accidents. Suicide resulting from PTSD is, unequivocally, an epidemic. In the wake of Veteran’s Day in the U.S.A., it’s important to note the ways in which PTSD can affect not only emotional, but also physical well-being.
Heart Problems Tied to PTSD
Recent research from Emory University found that heart problems were more prevalent in twins diagnosed with PTSD than twins without PTSD. Out of 562 middle-aged twins from the Vietnam War era studied, 22.6% with PTSD experienced heart-related problems, while only 8.9% of twins without PTSD exhibited heart trouble. Moreover, heart scans revealed that PTSD patients were more likely to exhibit reduced blood flow. This newly uncovered link between cardiovascular efficiency and extreme anxiety demonstrates how emotional stress takes a physical toll.
Throwing Pharmaceuticals at PTSD Patients
All too often, veterans report being greeted back home by a health care program that fails them. Erika Whittier, a veteran and Bastyr University for Naturopathic Medicine student, recalls having pharmaceutical drugs thrown at her upon her return to civilian life:
“They said ‘Take 800 to 1,600 milligrams of Motrin everyday.’ …essentially they threw their hands up like there was nothing else they could do.”
This narrow approach to treating medical conditions neglects the comprehensive treatment options available for stress-related health issues. Pharmaceutical medications that ease anxiety symptoms often have negative side effects, and some can even be addictive. Several ongoing studies suggest that proper nutrition may support brain function and help maintain healthy anxiety levels.
New Target for Stress Disorders: Ghrelin
A hormone known to affect appetite may play a role in making the brain vulnerable to stress, according to a new study conducted on rats. During stressful situations, the brain releases the hormone ghrelin (known as the “hunger hormone”). Researchers discovered that an increase in ghrelin levels makes the brain more susceptible to trauma, thus predisposing an individual to PTSD. The study implies that lowering levels of ghrelin in the body prior to stressful situations (like deploying to a war zone) may help people manage stress and anxiety. Exciting news for preventative medicine!
Relaxation Techniques for Anxiety Relief
In addition to supporting the body with proper nutrition, acupuncture and behavioral therapies have been found to help patients cope with intense stress.
Researchers examined the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating the symptoms of stress disorders by analyzing depression, anxiety, and impairment in 73 subjects with PTSD. During a 12-week period, subjects received either acupuncture or group cognitive-behavioral therapy. Both acupuncture and group therapy improved the symptoms of the PTSD subjects, while the control group did not improve. The positive effects lingered for about three months after treatment, suggesting these alternative avenues may hold promise for people with PTSD.
Probiotics for Positive Moods?
Yet another star player in the supplement world, probiotics, have been found to alter brain neurochemistry and improve the symptoms associated with anxiety disorders. One study showed that mice fed with a Lactobacillus strain of good bacteria were less anxious and less depressed than mice in the placebo group. However, not only did mice behavior change, but their levels of the stress-induced hormone corticosterone were also significantly lower. Though the so-called gut-brain connection continues to be a topic of focus for researchers and medical professionals alike, this is the first time probiotics have been shown to directly affect brain chemistry in animals.
Omega-3s Being Evaluated for Anxiety Treatment
In recent years, omega-3 fatty acids found in nerve and brain tissue have been linked to tons of health benefits, including healthy brain function and positive effects on mood. In 2012, the military announced a three-year, $10 million study to determine the effectiveness of omega-3s for reducing or preventing PTSD symptoms. A 2011 study already concluded that male military members with the lowest levels of docosahexaenoic acid (a fatty acid found in fish oil) had a 62% higher risk of committing suicide. If omega-3s are shown to support lower anxiety and stress levels, the military may be equipped with an affordable, non-prescription way to manage PTSD symptoms. Yay for alternative medicine!