If you currently serve or have served in a combat MOS, then what I am about to tell you could change your life. No, I am not trying to sell you anything, and I am not currently taking on clients, so I have nothing to gain from this except the satisfaction that I am giving my brothers information that could help them improve their lives. If you're a young marine or soldier in a combat unit, you may not believe this, but those of us who are a bit older understand it all too well: serving in a combat unit is severely unhealthy. Yeah, I know, no shit right? No, I'm not talking about the dangers of the job, though they are significant. I'm also not talking about the fact that you guys probably use double the amount of cigarettes and dip of your average middle aged redneck. That kinda comes with the territory and most of you will probably quit shortly after you get out. What I am talking about are the things you're probably not thinking about: lack of sleep, constant physical movement, and really poor nutrition, and their effects on your brain, other internal organs, hormones, and overall health.
We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) as two of the most prevalent conditions affecting service members long after they get discharged, and we think of these as results of the stresses of combat or trauma induced injury. This is most certainly true, but it was certainly no less true during World War II. Why then, are veteran suicide rates, particularly amongst these two groups of casualties, at an all time high in US history? We could argue that civilian society is less friendly to veterans, but it was no more friendly during Vietnam (granted that group of veterans also saw its share of problems).
In thinking about this issue, I thought back to my own life as a US Marine Corps Rifleman versus my life now. Yes I served in OIF, but like many, I really wasn't doing anything high speed. My war was spent running security missions around the Euphrates River and Shatt Al Arab in southern Iraq, and though nerve racking because we were often by ourselves, it was largely uneventful. Given that I was on stop loss, I was discharged after this deployment and returned to civilian life. I was eager to get on with my life, but I remember not being able to think very properly. I would zone off often, had very little energy, would fall asleep in the middle of tasks, and I had little energy for physical activity. It was not until my health started to really deteriorate that I started to get myself back into shape. I'd started getting frequent bouts of bloody diarrhea. When I began trying to eat healthy and exercising more, it went away, until I began bodybuilding. I'd started to train like a madman, and gorged myself with massive amounts of calories in an effort to get big. Then, the flood gates started opening. Soon I was running to the bathroom over 30 times a day and could not go out because I could not control my bowels. When I'd get up from the toilet, it was filled with blood. My brain was foggier than ever, and I barely had energy to move, let alone train.
When I brought my case to the VA, they diagnosed me with Ulcerative Colitis. This is an autoimmune disease where your immune system begins attacking the inner lining of your intestinal tract due to chronic levels of inflammation. They gave me medication, and I thought everything was going to get better. It didn't. No matter how many times we increased the doses, my body kept turning on itself. Desperate, I began researching ways of healing and experimenting on myself. I began by lowering the number of times I was eating a day, from eight to one meal a day. This stopped the diarrhea but the bleeding continued. From there, I decreased my protein and carbohydrates to under 50 grams a day each, while raising my fat levels to over 150 grams. The logic here was that I could sustain myself with the calories from the fat, while lowering the stress on my digestive system. I got most of my fats from coconut oil and grass fed butter. Finally, this seemed to do the trick.
Soon, something funny happened. I was not only improving my ulcerative colitis, I was also thinking better and getting stronger and more muscular. Very soon I was beating a personal best in the gym each week and I was putting on lots of muscle. My thought processes became clearer and I was doing very well in my business. Finally, my sex drive came back. I became obsessed with figuring out why this was happening, so I began reading everything I could. I realized that I was doing something called the Ketogenic diet without even knowing it: very high fat, low carbohydrate, and low protein. Essentially, I'd trained my body to fuel itself with it's own fat stores rather than glucose. This leveled out my blood sugar levels, reduced inflammation, and allowed my gut to heal while preserving my muscle tissue and giving me more strength and endurance. It was everything opposite to what the Marine Corps had me do, and opposite to everything that was currently being done in bodybuilding and sports nutrition, but it was the only thing that worked for me.
The Silent Enemy: Chronic Inflammation
My point is not to sell you on the Ketogenic diet. It is effective, but there are other healthy ways to improve your nutrition without going into ketosis. Additionally, as many of you are still in the fleet, most of you probably can't get into ketosis with the chow that you're pretty much forced to eat. Additionally, most of you probably do not have ulcerative colitis or the gut problems that I have. On the other hand, you probably do not realize how much you are at risk for other issues such as severe depression, brain fog, psychological issues, memory problems, neurological disorders, bone and joint injury, erectile disfunction, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer because of the diet you are forced to eat because of your job. Additionally, if you develop PTSD or receive a TBI, poor nutrition can actually worsen the symptoms of these conditions.
Here's why: anyone who serves in a combat MOS is in for years of poor chow and MREs, horrible sleep patterns, chronic stress, and constant wear and tear due to training and physical stresses of the job. All of this can add up to one thing that will make your life miserable: total body chronic inflammation.
The body undergoes two types of inflammation: chronic and acute. Both of these are necessary to some extent and help with healing processes. Acute inflammation happens when you sustain a traumatic injury. Basically, the body sends white blood cells to the area to begin tissue repair and help you recover. You can actually feel this type of inflammation through soreness. Chronic inflammation, however, is inflammation you can't feel. It happens because of some disturbance in your body. When the body senses that disturbance, it again sends the white blood cells to the area but this time they stay there because the disturbance is too low level for them to sense and eliminate. As such, they begin attacking healthy tissue. Depending on what is being attacked, an autoimmune disease can occur. These include rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, crohns, colitis, fibromyalgia, and lupus. If they do not lead to an autoimmune disease, other severe issues can occur like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Additionally, chronic inflammation has a deleterious effect on the brain and central nervous system, which can lead to dementia, brain fog, depression, and hormonal deficiencies like a lack of testosterone.
Chronic inflammation is caused in a couple of different ways. The first is physical stress caused by constant levels of activity. For instance, performing an excess of stressful activities, running every single day or walking for long distances can cause a high degree of chronic inflammatory responses. Second, over consumption of processed sugar and vegetable oils are also major causes of inflammation through over secretion of insulin and oxidative stress. Finally, poor sleep patterns can cause stress, insulin resistance, and higher inflammatory responses. This means that the marines and soldiers serving in combat MOS's are in the midst of a perfect storm: constant stressful activity, lack of sleep, and processed MREs.
How Can I Fight Chronic Inflammation?
Normally, I would be telling you lower your carbohydrate intake, avoid vegetable oils, and begin consuming lots of healthy fats. Many of you still serving will not have this option. If you do, I highly suggest reading the books Grain Brain by Doctor David Perlmutter, and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney to get a base, and I will write a future article on the Ketogenic diet. But for those of you still in, we need to consider other options. The following is a list of practices I would begin and things I would include in my regimen if I were still in the Marine Corps. Please do not consider this medical advice as I am not a licensed physician. I'm just a trainer who's been there and done that.
Yeah, I know. Meditation is for hippies and communists. No it isn't. There is actually a strong tradition of warrior meditation dating back to the samurai, and the DOD is beginning to implement the practice in some units as part of its Warrior Mind Training program. What are the benefits? Meditation is an extremely useful practice to reduce stress and increase mindfulness, or the habit of being present and not drifting off to dream about Suzy Rotten Crotch or hentai porn, or whatever you kids are into these days. It is also scientifically demonstrated to improve the effectiveness of the sleep you do get and to reduce total body chronic inflammation.
I recommend two sessions a day: in the early morning and in the evening before bed. For some of you it might come easy, but for many of you it will be hard. Here is my suggestion to get into it:
If you're at home or in the barracks: tie a skivvy shirt around your head as a blindfold and grab your phone and plug your earphones in. Turn on some binaural beats on YouTube and sit there for 15-30 minutes listening to the beats and focusing on your breathing.
Binaural Beats for Sleep https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-i88zkxPug
Binaural Beats for Morning https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE7_dg_55oY
If you're in the field or on deployment, you probably do not have a phone, unless you're a sneaky bastard or they've changed a lot of shit since I've been in. In this case, just do the blindfold, stick some hearing protection in your ears, focus on your breathing, and repeat a motivational word to yourself over and over again out loud.
This is not the end all, be all of meditation, and I am no guru, but this is what I do and it's worked for me. Play around with it, see what works for you, and practice it. It's completely free and the worse thing that can happen is that you'll be more relaxed.
2) Pogie Bait
So in addition to the three sleeves of Copenhagen you're stuffing into your pack, you should bring some healthy snacks along with you. Here are a few I would go with:
Raw Brazil Nuts: these meaty nuts are high in monounsaturated fat, which is highly anti inflammatory and loaded with selenium, which increases thyroid function and stabilizes metabolism. They also are fantastic for naturally raising testosterone.
Chia Seeds: these little black seeds are loaded with inflammation fighting omega 3's, but they are hard to digest. Here's how to eat them: during your down time, pour some chia seeds into your canteen cup. Then pour some water into the cup so the seeds are just covered. Let them soak for as long as you can, and then eat them like a pudding.
Gluten Free Crackers: Even though you may not have celiac disease, gluten still causes a high degree of inflammation. Substituting gluten free crackers for MRE crackers to cover with your cheese, jelly, or peanut butter could knock at least one MRE pitfall down. Here are some that are made from hemp (no you won't pop on your piss test or get high):
EPIC Bars: If you're looking to avoid MREs all together, which could be a good choice, EPIC bars would be a good protein source. They are made from organic meats, fat, and anti-inflammatory berries.
Single Serve Coconut Oil Packets: Again, if you want to avoid MRE's all together, these are a good choice. Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerdes (MCTs), which are fatty acids that bypass the liver and get directly into the bloodstream to fuel the brain. This will give you more energy, and allow you to think better without having to refuel yourself with sugar from your MREs.
80% or higher cacao Dark Chocolate: This is a good option after a long day of training. Dark chocolate has many anti inflammatory benefits, is high in fiber, and slightly caffeinated in case you have watch.
For those of you who do not go out to the field regularly anymore, you can definitely still use these as snacks. I will also be doing a more complete article on a diet for veterans next week.
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)
Every swinging dick in the combat MOS's and veterans of the combat MOS's needs to be on this supplement. It is an amino acid derivative that replenishes intercellular glutathione. What that means in grunt speak is that it helps to repair damage everywhere: the liver, the brain, joints, and everything else. Why is this important? Because the military has been pouring poisons into your body from the beginning. No not actual poison, but low quality food and MREs, motrin, exposure to harsh cancer causing chemicals like rifle cleaning fluid, and shit loads of cancer and heart disease causing stress. On top of that, the medications the VA has been giving out to veterans for their common afflictions are not easy on the liver or the rest of the internal organs. This supplement also works very well for those with TBI and PTSD because of its positive effect on the brain. I would take between 600 and 1200mg a day for the length of an enlistment and beyond separation.
Ashwaganda is known as an adaptogenic herb. It helps to relieve stress on the body, improve brain function, and protects the testicular function. It's stress relief properties are perfect for the active duty grunt and for the veteran seeking to increase his vitality. I would recommend between 150 and 300mg a day.
This is a super concentrated form of the herb turmeric. Curcumin is highly anti-inflammatory and help's aching joints, internal organ function, and brain function. It can also help with headaches and could level out blood sugar. I would take 500mg three times a day with meals. This was a god sent for me in stemming the effects of my ulcerative colitis and has promising benefits for TBI and other trauma issues.
Omega 3 Fish Oil
Another anti inflammatory that you should be taking to counter the high levels of Omega 6 in military chow. Omega 6 raises inflammation while Omega 3 lowers it. This will help with body aches, recovery, and for preventing heart disease.
This is a form of choline that helps to increase cognition and brain function. It is not an upper and will not make you feel like a rhesus monkey on crack, but it will increase your ability to think and focus. Take around 300mg with your morning coffee or before you are about to go out on patrol. Veterans should take this daily to stem any issues with neurological function related to TBI or other injury. It also may help to prevent symptoms of dementia and Alzheimers.
This mineral is also highly anti inflammatory and acts as a sleep aid. It won't make you feel crazy groggy, but it will induce a good restful sleep. My recommendation is 400mg before you hit the rack. Don't take more than this unless you want to have a diaper moment (you will shit yourself).
Vitamin D/Vitamin K2
Many veterans who do have issues with inflammation also have issues with low vitamin D. This can cause a whole host of issues from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. My recommendation is 35 iu per lb of bodyweight if you have exhibited a deficiency in a blood test. What the doctor will not tell you is that you should also be taking around 150 mcg of vitamin K2 a day with vitamin D because supplementing with D can cause calcification, leading to heart disease.
4) Train Smarter
So, you're young, you're in the Marine Corps, and you got lot's of testosterone. You're in a line company, and you're out in the field a lot doing lot's of physical shit. Humps, ranges, land nav, fire watch if you're a boot, jumping up and down and screaming because you're a dumbass and you racked out on top of a fire ant hill (Lejeune Marines), stumbling around looking for your moon beam or Gerber.
The rest of your time you're back in the barracks, doing PT early in the morning, eating a shitty breakfast, doing some sort of mind numbing training until you break for chow, doing the same thing after chow except it seems gayer, heading back to the barracks, changing over, you hit the gym, then you get back and get shit faced while playing video games til 0200, and then you show up to PT hungover to do it all over again. Welcome to peacetime.
Here's the kicker: when you hit your mid twenties, things start slowing down. You get tired more easily and the hangovers seem worse. You really want to train, but you just can't find the energy, unless you're still in and you're forced to. Shit just doesn't seem exciting anymore in any capacity, and you get pissed off more and more easily.
If this is you, part of this is because of poor nutrition, alcohol consumption, and lack of sleep. But there's something else you probably aren't thinking about. When this is combined with the long runs, the field exercises, the humps, the attempts to get swole in the gym or to become a cross fit beast, on top of massive amounts of caffeine consumption, it creates hormonal shutdown and adrenal fatigue.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't train. You have to. What I am saying is that on top of improving your diet, taking the supplements I mentioned above, cutting back on the drinking, and getting more sleep, you need to really think about the way that you train if you want to remain effective into your 30s and 40s. I'm going to lay out a fuller program in a future article, but here are some tips:
When I was in, PT consisted of a 3 mile run almost every time we did it. We'd go at the same pace, and we'd do some really gay calisthenics before. I often wondered, "when the fuck in combat are we going to be running in a straight line at a 7 to 8 minute mile pace?" The point is that running long distances at the same pace every day can create some massive problems with your health. First, it can cause an overproduction of cortisol, which can lead to lower testosterone levels and other hormonal imbalances. Second, it can increase total body chronic inflammation, leading to achy joints, higher blood sugar levels, internal organ malfunction, and heart disease.
You do have to run, but here is how the training should be structured for optimal performance, health, a first class PFT, and combat effectiveness:
Twice per week: steady run between 3 to 5 miles.
Two to three times per week: high intensity interval training. This is where you do short intense bursts of exercise followed by intermittent periods of rest. A good example of this is the Tabata protocol - where you would do something like a kettle bell swing for 20 straight seconds, followed by ten seconds of rest, and then repeat this sequence for four minutes. Normally this is done for three to four four minute rounds.
Once per week: a max effort endurance workout where you leave almost nothing in the tank. This could be a short speed hump, a crossfit heroes wod, or sets of 400 meter sprints combined with kettle bell work or burpees (maybe a little bit sadistic).
The point here is that there is variation, which keeps you from overuse injury, but also provides for your heart to beat in different ranges. This leads to a healthier heart, less oxidative stress, and better hormonal balance from training.
Again, the major problem here comes from total body chronic inflammation. Lots of guys in the Marine Corps want to be big and jacked, so they train like pro bodybuilders. I know I did. And when I look back at pictures of myself, I was quite the opposite. The funny thing is that the most jacked dudes in the Marine Corps are always POGs because they're the only ones with constant access to chow and they rarely have to go out to the field.
As a grunt, if you try to train like a pro bodybuilder, you're gonna have problems. Maybe not immediately, but they will eventually happen. The biggest problem with following a bodybuilding regimen during this oh so fragile time in your life will be consistently high levels of chronic inflammation. You can't do all the shit you're doing in the field, on top of the lack of sleep, on top of the poor nutrition, on top of the drinking, caffeine, and tobacco use, on top of the PT, and still expect to recover and function normally for long if you're hitting the gym 6 nights a week. It will ruin your mental focus, and eventually hit your sex drive, and worsen the possibility of recovering from any traumatic injuries you receive in combat. Crossfit is another option as well, but it needs to be programmed intelligently. If you're doing max effort WODS every day, coupled with olympic and power lifts, not even your knee high socks and chalk will help your ass recover properly.
You should still hit the weights, of course, but it should be with the aim of strengthening you functionally for your job (veterans, I will get a routine up for you in a future article). My recommendation is to train for strength three days per week at low to mid volume:
Day 1: Upper Body/Push
Overhead Press 3 x5
Bench Press 3 X 5
Dips: 5 X 10-12
Conditioning: high intensity interval session
Day 2: Rest or steady run
Day 3: Lower Body
Front Squat 5 X 5
Deadlift 5 X 5
Lunges 3 X 10
Conditioning: Tabata Kettle Bell Swings for 3 four minute rounds.
Day 4: Rest or steady run
Day 5: Pull
Pullups: 5 X 10
Bent Over Row: 4 X 10
One Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 X 10
Day 6: Max Effort Session (Sprints, hero wod, long distance hump)
Day 7: Rest and Recover.
So what I've tried to do here is to give you a blueprint for how to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that many marines and soldiers, serving in combat MOS's, have fallen into. While you can't control combat trauma or its psychological effects, you can do a lot of things to stem the severity of any potential injuries or issues down the line. As we move forward, I will give you guys more and more guides like these. I'm honestly sick of helping people get abs for a living. I want to start helping the group of people who mean the most to me: my brothers in arms. I hope you got something out of this and please do not hesitate to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond.