How can we help our front-line workers in these times of heightened stress and anxiety?
Effective Support for Front-line Workers
In this time of horrific stress in our country, as well as in the whole world, my heart goes out to the front-line workers, those who never get a break! This includes the doctors and nurses in overcrowded ICUs, where more and more people are dying in spite of their best efforts. It includes essential workers like hospital housekeepers, janitors, prison guards, and many more…those whose jobs and callings constantly expose them, not only to the virus itself, but also to exhaustion, powerlessness, and unremitting grief. It has always included first responders such as EMTs, police and firemen. It even includes morticians and their front-end staff! Similarly to those who live in families where there is constant stress and fear from active addiction, domestic violence or chronic illness and pain, this unremitting stress takes a toll not only on the spirit, but also on bodies and brains, leading many people to and past their breaking point. This past year, we have seen soaring rates of suicide, relapse, and violence in general, along with domestic violence. Depression, anxiety and insomnia are increasing, and many people are turning to their doctors for help. However, the only toolbox most doctors turn to, medication, doesn’t actually address the real problem, and can even make things worse.
This is not ok! This is especially not ok since we actually have tools within the disciplines of mental health nutrition and nutritional psychiatry to address the REAL biochemical problem, thus allowing people to cope more effectively with extreme stress, and reverse the toll it takes on body, mind and spirit.
We start by understanding that it is our brain’s job to allow us to cope with stress gracefully, but to do that, it needs to be fed optimally . Both our calming as well as our energizing neurotransmitters step up production as needed when the proper raw materials are present . Our body runs on specific nutrients, specific chemicals, which we can only get from food. However, during extreme stress, we use up these essential nutrients rapidly, leaving us deficient. Furthermore, under the influence of extreme, unremitting stress, we often don’t find the time or energy to feed ourselves adequately, our digestion suffers so that we are no longer efficiently extracting these key nutrients from the food we eat, and we often lose our appetite. This becomes a vicious downward spiral, leading many people to crave any relief, often in the form of mood-altering chemicals or behaviors. Unfortunately, these substances and behaviors – sugar, alcohol, meth, weed, opioids, conspiracy theories, pornography, etc, only deplete our neurotransmitters even more. And the medication from our medical professionals only tweak the brain; they don’t feed it. Over time, these meds even deplete our neurotransmitters as well, thus causing even more damage, and accentuating the downward spiral.
At the same time that our neurotransmitters are being depleted, our adrenal function is also negatively impacted. As stress ramps up, our adrenals ramp up too, producing more adrenaline and more cortisol. These chemicals energize us, but when produced for too long and too hard, they also make us angry and reactive, give us insomnia and metabolic syndrome, and further deplete our body of crucial precursor nutrients. They also interfere with proper digestion and absorption, again leading to nutrient deficiency. Over time, this up-regulation of the adrenal system, switches to down-regulation, and the adrenals start producing less and less of these key neurotransmitters and hormones, leaving us exhausted, overwhelmed and, again, craving. Unfortunately, the conventional tests endocrinologists use to measure adrenal output, don’t appear to be sensitive enough to catch this decline, until it becomes end-stage. However, saliva tests from reputable labs do catch it, and can be useful tools in effectively addressing this situation.
What Is the answer? The answer is to Feed the Brain, FIRST! How do we do this? We start by jump-starting the system using easily available, fairly affordable, over-the-counter nutrients. These nutrients start with the foundational key vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium and others, all found in a higher dose multi-vitamin/mineral formula. Something like Centrum generally isn’t strong enough to quickly rebuild our deficient stores of nutrients. Fish oil, (or flaxseed oil if fish is not tolerated) which I think is one of the best anti-depressants around (!), in the right dose, comes next. It allows the neurotransmitters to efficiently transmit, as well as being energizing and anti-inflammatory. It kicks in in about 3 days. Finally, our jump-start process needs to include free-form amino acids. These powerhouse nutrients typically come from the protein in our diet, and can start rebuilding our mood and energy supporting neurotransmitters within 20 minutes! They are anti-addictive, meaning that over time, as they rebuild our neurotransmitter stores, we can take less and less to get the same effect. Ultimately, sufficient protein in our diet will be enough to keep those stores full, but initially, these free-form amino acids reduce cravings, anxiety, insomnia and depression, allowing us to triumph over the stress.
Finally, as these foundational nutrients do their job, and we start feeling more calm and stable again, we can put our attention to optimally feeding ourselves real food, the ultimate source of the chemicals which run our bodies and brains. This includes a minimum of 60-80 grams of protein per day, preferably ~20 grams every 4 hours. We do not typically recommend intermittent fasting during these times of high stress, as stable blood sugar, and sufficient nutrient intake is crucial to effective functioning. The FDA recommends 7-9 servings of fruits and veggies a day to meet our basic vitamin, mineral and fiber needs. Food is actually not optional! In addition, I would recommend adding a digestive enzyme if there are digestive disturbances. Nutrient deficiency and high cortisol, can lower our production of key digestive enzymes, and our digestive systems might need to be jump-started as well.
For more information, you can consult your local functional medical doctor or nutritionist, naturopath, and integrative psychiatrist, or go to Client Resources (addictionnutritionacademy.com) to find a Certified Recovery Nutrition Coach to guide you through this process. To learn how to support your own front-line clients in this way take our training at Amino Acid Therapy (addictionnutritionacademy.com) or find training videos on YouTube at Academy for Addiction and Mental Health Nutrition.
To thriving health and well-being!
Christina Veselak, MS, LMFT in CO, CN
Director, The Academy for Addiction and Mental Health Nutrition