As Memorial Day 2016 came and went, and while most of the nation enjoyed sales, beach openings, and BBQs, a lot of us in the veteran community were more reflective. Some of us participated in the festivities (and there's nothing wrong with this in my opinion), some of us toasted to our fallen brothers in quieter settings, and some of us spent the day in quiet thought.
But regardless of how you remembered those fallen heroes who once stood by your side and the countless brave men who fought for this country, I want you to take a second to think about something you may not think about often: yourself. Not in a selfish I want you to go out and blow your savings on a new motorcycle sort of way. Rather I want you to take a deep breath, feel the air in your lungs and the sun against your skin and say, "fuck I'm alive."
You're alive, and I want you to appreciate that and cherish it because being alive brings a whole lot of opportunities. But to take maximum advantage of the amazing opportunities that being alive affords, you've gotta take care of your body.
What boggles my mind about the modern medical system is that, while the VA will spend billions of dollars prescribing medications for depression, PTS, and TBI, so little money has been dedicated to examining the ways in which fitness and nutrition contribute to many of the things we are seeing in our veterans.
In this world there are things that you can't control and things that you can. All we can do as individuals is worry about the things that put us in charge of our own fates. For those of us in the VA care system, this is an important concept to understand: you have one of these conditions. You can't control the fact that you have it, it's part of your past that's manifested itself in your present. If you rely solely on the doses of the prescriptions given to you by your doctors, then your treatment and healing lies solely in their hands. I say fuck that.
None of us are victims. We willingly volunteered to serve, and we should willingly take a part in fostering our own treatment. All that is required here is a little bit of knowledge.
No, I'm not telling you to skip your appointments or to stop taking your prescriptions, but I am telling you that there are things you can do on your own to gain more control over your symptoms.
As such, I'm starting this series on how nutrition and fitness can help to fight PTS, TBI, Depression and other common ailments that veterans face.
It starts with the 5 tips in this blog, and on Tuesday, I am going to be interviewing two medical doctors regarding their insights as to how these measures can help those who suffer. Be sure to listen to that.
To get us started, here are five foundational steps any veteran who suffers from any of these ailments should take to mitigate their symptoms and help them begin to heal:
1. Any Time You Eat Move
You need to move and move often. Maybe you can't run five to six miles a day anymore and maybe you can't even walk, but you need to move. That means doing what you can with what you've got.
One of the big enemies that we don't often talk about when it comes to mental health is unhealthy blood sugar levels. Basically, when we eat, our blood sugar goes up and the hormone insulin gets secreted. Insulin's job is to bring blood sugar down by shuttling glucose to areas of the body that need it.
But there has to be a need. Unless our muscle and liver cells have been depleted of glucose to some extent, they do not respond to the hormone insulin and glucose gets shuttled to our fat cells. When this happens often enough, fat builds up. This can lead to increased health risks and higher levels of total body chronic inflammation. If you have an old injury, a neurological problem induced by traumatic brain injury, or even if you suffer from something like PTS or depression, inflammation can make your symptoms worse.
One of the best ways to allow insulin to work more effectively is to move after you eat. Take a fifteen minute walk after lunch or dinner. If you can't walk then move what you can. This will level out that blood sugar and allow insulin to do it's job.
2. Lift Weights
You don't need to be a champion powerlifter or bodybuilder, but you do need to lift weights. Like walking, lifting weights increases our sensitivity to the hormone insulin, but it has an additive benefit. Studies have demonstrated that resistance exercise actually increases the number of receptor sites on our muscle cells that respond to the hormone insulin. This is one of the many reasons that lifting weights aids with fat loss.
Again, this doesn't have to be complicated. Start with two or three thirty minute workouts per week.
I've got a bunch of workout ideas over at chrisalbertfitness.com, but here's an example to get you started:
30 minute run
Overhead Press 5X5
Bench Press: 5X5
30 minute run
Bent over row: 5X10
Pull ups 5X10
1 hour hike or 30 minute run
You can add stuff to this, but this is a bare bones routine that you can do to set a foundation for something more advanced. This will keep your insulin levels in check and allow for proper carbohydrate metabolism, which will help you to lose fat, reduce inflammation, and keep the rest of your hormones running optimally.
3. Get Rid of Plastics
The popular media talks about plastics as something that could cause cancer, but few of us ever stop to ask why. Well one of the main reasons for this is because of xenon estrogens. Plastics contain compounds that can mimic estrogen in the human body, and these compounds can cause havoc on your health whether you are a man or a woman.
For our purposes, if you combine an influx of xeno estrogens with a hormone deficiency due to a block in testosterone precursors, a number of things can happen: emotional instability, weight gain, and cellular growth leading to cancer. The emotional instability aspect can contribute to symptoms related to PTS and depression.
At the very least, stop drinking from plastic containers. Glass bottles are cheap and you can use them over and over again. Glass tupperware is also an easy substitute for plastic food containers.
4. Eat Fat and Avoid Gluten and Sugar
For many years, fat free diets were all the rage, but a funny thing happened during that time. Heart disease and obesity spiked. Rather than contributing to fat loss and heart health, many of these low fat diets created higher levels of total body chronic inflammation and decreased glucose metabolism. This led people to become fatter and less healthy.
High fat diets are still very controversial, but there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that including fat in your diet while avoiding sugar and high carbohydrate intake can have many positive health benefits. These include increased mental health, better alertness and focus, muscle, increased overall leanness, and better glucose utilization.
Scientists are currently examining the benefits of nutritional ketosis on veterans affected by TBI and PTS. Though I cannot give specific diet recommendations here, a general rule that I follow is to keep my carbohydrate level as low as possible while eating lots of fats and green vegetables with a moderate amount of protein. This has kept my strength levels high, it's kept me lean, and allows me to compete in Spartan Races even though I work 12-15 hours a day. I get my fats from things like grass fed butter, grassfed beef, coconut oil, olive oil, and MCT oil.
For more on this, see this article.
5. Drink Water
Put down the soda and the beer (at least for a little bit) and drink lots of water. Our bodes' processes cannot occur efficiently without a proper medium. That medium is water. Dehydration can affect cognitive clarity by inducing brain fog, and it can make us hormonally deficient. You cannot burn fat or build muscle unless you are properly hydrated.
As you may have guessed, chronic dehydration can create factors that contribute to symptoms of PTS, TBI, and many other health issues.
It's time that we, as a community, begin to increase awareness of the things we can control that will positively affect our health and our lives. These are just five tips. I am not the be all end all of fitness knowledge and you should all do your own research, but these tips will get you started. If any of you have any questions, don't be afraid to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.