I would like to preface this particular article by mentioning that I am the wife of a Chicago police officer. The physical, mental, and emotional health of the men and women who put their lives on the line on a daily basis is something I take very seriously. In this society, it is unfortunate but well-known that the health of people working some of the toughest and most dangerous jobs often takes a back seat to duty, honor, and commitment. This is a corps of individuals so selfless that it's difficult for them to convince themselves to take a break and get something to eat, much less take on any type of lifestyle change like dietary adjustments or regular exercise. Ironically, first responders, military members, nurses, and other individuals in high stress jobs are often the people who need lifestyle counseling and naturopathic medicine the most, especially considering the other options are to "suck it up and deal with it," or prescription drugs.
Despite being at a higher risk for many health conditions than the general population, such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, insomnia, elevated stress hormones, PTSD, and suicide, first responders are often expected to "suffer in silence." The negative effect stress has on the body has been well-documented, especially when it is constant and long-term. Often, people associate stress with something that they feel, rather than something that might have deleterious long term outcomes on their health. These constant exposures to overtly stressful and sometimes terrifying, horrifically sad, and genuinely life-threatening situations not only affects mental and emotional health, but manifests in various and sinister ways throughout the body, including cardiovascular disease that can result in heart attack or stroke. Preventative measures are rarely if ever undertaken, and conventional medicine works in a model where no action is taken until disease is present.
So what can be done? Are there ways to mitigate the toll that extreme stress takes on the body? Using the naturopathic philosophy that states, "create the conditions for health," we can work toward preventing these severe outcomes and even affect the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of first responders on a daily basis.
1. Food & Hydration
Believe it or not, a healthy diet can have a powerful impact on stress, especially in the long-term. Eating for health with homemade meals of simple ingredients like vegetables, fruits, lean meat, and whole grains rather eating for convenience with fast food can beneficially impact levels of stress hormones, cholesterol, blood sugar, and more.
However, this is an issue that comes down to practicality and preparation. What I find is most people in high stress jobs WANT to eat healthier, but they don't feel like they are able to. This leads to grabbing food on the fly, which is often laden with sugar, unhealthy trans and saturated fats, chemicals additives, empty calories, and lacking in fiber and nutrients. How can this cycle be broken?
-First, make a meal plan.
Give special consideration to the meals you eat while on the job. Your goal is to try to make these meals healthy, tasty, and easy to wolf down quickly. For example, my husband often has to eat his meals cold, so on his day off he makes enough of a healthy pasta salad to eat throughout the week.
Check out eatingwell.com for ideas.
Need guidance on what sorts of things are healthy to eat? Take a look at the Mediterranean diet.
-Focus on whole foods
Think of your diet in terms of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and lean meat. STOP thinking of your diet in terms of boxed, frozen meals. The easiest thing to do is break each meal down into individual components:
1. A complex carbohydrate for energy
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa, or whole grain pasta
2. A healthy fat for sustained energy
Pick up some Kerry Gold grass-fed butter to put in your pasta or on your potato
3. Protein source for muscle repair and maintenance
Think lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish. Limit red meat to 1-2 servings per week
4. Don't forget your salad!
A small side salad of 1-2 cups of dark, leafy greens is a great source of magnesium and B-vitamins, both of which are essential for stress management.
-Use one of your days off to go shopping, make food, and organize yourself for the week.
The key here is to make as much, if not all, of the food you will eat on the job in advance.
Try to stay on the periphery of the store rather than venturing into aisles to get your major ingredients (that way, you avoid the boxed junk)
-Get a lunch bag that is easy and convenient to bring with you on the job.
A good lunch bag should keep food cold throughout your entire tour and be easy and convenient to pack and clean. My husband loves his isobag.
That means drinking WATER, not juice, soda, or coffee. You should aim to drink half your body weight in fluid ounces daily. Yes, you will have to pee a lot. Chris got around that problem by asking several businesses in his beat if he could use their bathrooms on a regular basis. They were thrilled with the increased police presence!
For many first responders, this one is easier said than done. However, quality sleep is absolutely essential to dampening the stress response by lowering stress hormones. It is important that you fall asleep easily, stay asleep without waking, and wake refreshed. It's common and even "normal" to have intense dreams, but these should not wake you up or affect you at work. There are many options for poor sleepers, including supplements and in some scenarios, even prescription drugs are warranted. However, a good foundation of healthy eating habits, regular exercise, and stress-coping techniques are a better long term solution.
For more detailed information on how to get restful sleep, check out this blog post.
3. Stress Outlets: High & Low Intensity
Combating the negative effects of stress takes effort. It means taking time out of your day to unwind and focus on yourself (for once.) Physically and mentally, stress needs somewhere to go. This means that not only are the raw emotions of the day present even after you clock out, the physiological effects are there as well, in the form of increased sympathetic drive (the "fight or flight" response), stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline), and sometimes elevated blood pressure and heart rate. All of these things need "somewhere to go." Without an outlet, they will wreak havoc on your health, your relationships, your sleep, and eventually may even start to affect you on the job.
So what should you do? Sweat them out. Spend 30-45 minutes in the gym lifting weights, doing MMA, or cardiovascular exercise.
Take a look at this link for ideas: "Training for Police Officers."
That's the "high intensity" stress outlet. After those negative emotions are burned off, you should be able to fill your brain with positive, motivating, and calming thoughts. That's why I recommend using a guided meditation app called Head Space. For just ten minutes a day (preferably before bed) you can be guided through a peaceful meditation that will allow you to clear your head and calm down.
4. Nutritional Supplementation
A high quality multivitamin, omega 3 fish oil, and a B-vitamin combination are excellent options for general health and to combat stress. Now you'll ask, "Shouldn't I be getting everything I need from the food I eat?" Well, ideally you would. However, unless you can genuinely answer "yes" to the question, "My diet consists mainly of organic fruits, vegetables, and lean meats," you probably need to be supplemented.
5. Botanical Medicine for Stress: Adaptogens
Botanical or herbal medicine is an option that NDs frequently try before resorting to pharmaceuticals (in situations that warrant it.) This system uses parts of particular plants to support certain organs of the body. An example is a class called the "adaptogens." Adaptogens are plants used in circumstances of increased adrenal stress response and elevated stress hormones. They often hep boost energy, mental function, and stamina, reduce anxiety, and aid in restful sleep. Often, I recommend that my clients in high stress jobs take a specific adaptogenic combination at night to help with sleep, and a different combination in the morning to help reduce stress and boost energy.
Adaptogens that help mitigate the harmful effects of chronic stress:
Siberian, American, and Asian Ginseng
Herbs that are useful for calming and sedative effects:
For more information about the effects of stress on the body, please check out my
Adrenal Fatigue blog series
If you have further questions, or would like brand recommendations for any of the supplements or botanicals listed in this blog article, please email me at DrPearce@anwnaturopathic.com. I am happy to help!
If you are a first responder, you need to take care of yourself now more than ever. Police officers all over the country are being targeted for wearing the uniform. Your health is paramount to staying sharp and staying safe. Dr. Alsop and I pray for your safety daily, and if you feel you could use our help, please book an appointment. We offer discounts for all appointments and packages to the country's finest and bravest.
Click here to make an appointment.
Now and always, thank you for your service.