Since 2001, over 1.6 million troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and millions more soldiers were sent to fight our wars and operations of the 20th century (1). With all the movies about war, still many of us are surprised that more soldier have committed suicide in Afghanistan than have been killed in combat. The psychological damage is immeasurable. Soldiers continue to struggle with the health and emotional illnesses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, long after the rest of us have forgotten we even had a war.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental condition that is triggered by a fight or flight response to a terrifying event. Symptoms of PTSD, as outlined by the Mayo Clinic, include: “flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as the uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” (2)
There are several pharmaceutical options used in an effort to calm anxieties and reduce the depression associated with PTSD, though at this time there is insufficient evidence to claim effectiveness of these medications (3). Further options may include conventional counseling, exposure therapy and mind/body work aimed at rebalancing and desensitizing the brain receptors that seem to have gone awry due to the traumatic stress that the individual experienced.
To further understand the body’s response to traumatic events, let’s examine the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and its possible relationship to PTSD. When your body goes through stress, neurotransmitters (or chemical messengers) such as epinephrine (aka: adrenaline) and norepinephrine, are released into your blood and are responsible for survival effects such as: raising your blood pressure, increasing your heart rate, and speeding up your breathing.
I frequently describe the sympathetic nervous system this way: … assume it is a normal day, and I happen to be hiking in the jungle, but all of a sudden, I see a tiger! In a split second, my autonomic nervous system (think: automatic nervous system) fired off my sympathetic (or “fight or flight”) pathway. I had a fraction of a second to decide if I was going to FIGHT the tiger in front of me or FLEE (run) away from it. Without me having to think about it, my body started pumping massive amounts of epinephrine (adrenaline) through my blood to: speed up my breathing - to get more oxygen to my blood, increase my heart rate and blood pressure - to get the oxygenated blood to my muscles as fast as possible, dilate my pupils - to help me see as best as possible what is in front of me… etc.
When not in periods of acute stress, the body down-regulates the sympathetic nervous system and switches to the parasympathetic system. This is the system that controls rest, relaxation and digestion - things the body is not concerned about when it is in sympathetic mode. The neurotransmitters, too, are very different from those used by the sympathetic system. Serotonin is one of our main neurotransmitters to regulate our parasympathetic system. Serotonin often times is referred to as our “happy” neurotransmitter, as it has major implications in mood regulation, appetite control, alertness and restful sleep.
PTSD and neurotransmitter balance
Due to the traumatic stress of PTSD victims, the neurotransmitters that fuel the sympathetic versus parasympathetic system get out of balance. As a Yale University journal review states, “It has been suggested that alterations in NE [norepinephrine], E [epinephrine], and 5-HT [5HTP] may have relevance for symptoms commonly seen in survivors with PTSD, including hypervigilance, exaggerated startle, irritability, impulsivity, aggression, intrusive memories, depressed mood, and suicidality.” (4) The nutritional approach, then, is to enhance the parasympathetic system by feeding the pathway: L-Tryptophan > 5HTP > Serotonin > Melatonin.
Some strategies for re-balancing neurotransmitters
Practitioners who use nutritional supplements in their practice believe they may be just as effective or even more effective than pharmaceutical options at addressing the anxiety, depression and sleep disorder symptoms of PTSD. Since neurotransmitters are made of specific amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), neurotransmitter deficiencies can be related to nutritional deficiencies.
The amino acid L-tryptophan, for example, is a precursor to melatonin (our sleep hormone) and serotonin, thus helping improve both sleep and mood.* Several other supplements, including amino acids such as theanine and glycine, several herbs such as kava and passiflora, and omega 3 fatty acids also are known to produce calming effects on the sympathetic nervous system and therefore also may play an important role in rebalancing neurotransmitters.
* For more information on L-tryptophan and it’s use as a therapeutic agent for PTSD and other neurotransmitter imbalance disorders, please stay tuned!
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