The tendency for interrupted sleep (40% of firefighters suffer from a sleep disorder), the long sedentary hours waiting for a call, bookended by the sudden adrenaline surges of the emergency, the emotional stress that comes with dangerous situations, the bursts of exertion – considering all this, the career of a first responder is a recipe for systemic inflammation, in dietary terms, the root of many health disorders. And studies, such as the USFA’s 2004 study Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, have consistently pointed to stress and over-exertion as the issue consistently at the root of over half the fatalities. Add to that the 9 – 29% of firefighters who reportedly abuse drugs or alcohol. Alcoholism finds support in the community culture, as well as it can form the chosen coping strategy for job-related stress. Both drinking alcohol and eating starches can lead to fatty liver and associated conditions such as poor heart health and diabetes. Basically, the alcoholic comfort food eater already has two fundamental health strikes against him or her.
For the firefighter, specifically, this is bad news. The medically recommended solutions to a firefighter’s career hazards include a healthy amount of uninterrupted sleep, regular rigorous exercise, and a particular diet low in processed starches and fat; high in complex fiber, fish and nuts.
The fact is that fewer than 10% of firefighters practice healthy eating and as few as 5% of firefighters take the time to work physical conditioning into their lifestyles.
Even without resorting to poor coping mechanisms such as alcohol, medications, or illicit drugs, the firefighter lifestyle exhibits many lifestyle patterns common to those with addictions. In speaking about the “dysfunctional lifestyle” of people who struggle with addiction, Dr. Ralph Carson, author of The Brain Fix, has said, “It often involves an unhealthy relationship with food, erratic sleep patterns, inactivity, and high level of stress compounded by poor coping mechanisms.”
There’s a reason for the starch, butter, and sugar of comfort foods. Eating disorder research has shown that reaching for the “comfort foods” can actually translate to a physiological defense against that stress, especially if those foods produce belly fat, which can hedge against the ravages of the stress hormone cortisol. Stress and the related inflammation that comes from poor lifestyle habits, are precursors to the nutritional health risks associated with the first responder lifestyle – heart disease, obesity, diabetes. “Occupational stress increases the risk of heart attack and diabetes, accelerates the aging process, decreases longevity, and contributes to depression and anxiety, among myriad other negative health outcomes. Overall, stress-related health problems account for up to 90 percent of hospital visits, many of them preventable.” – Huffington Post
On the up side, good sleep, relevant exercise, and proper diet can minimize stress responsiveness and can even out the peaks and troughs of adrenaline-based cycles. So it’s important for firefighters and other first responders, especially those habituated to the firefighter lifestyle through years of repetition, to find an access point for fitness and start to get a handle on their unique complex of health risks.
For those in recovery, there is double the imperative for good nutrition. Both drug and alcohol dependence knock the brain’s communication system out of balance by damaging, rewiring, or depleting neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and norepinephrine. “In essence, these neurological and physiological changes hijack the brain’s reward and impulse control system,” according to Dr. Carson.
Efficient, complete, and accelerated healing will not occur unless the avoidance of harmful substances is consistent and coupled with proper nutrition – which includes energy, raw materials, antioxidants, and fluids. – Dr. Ralph Carson (author of The Brain Fix: What’s the Matter with Your Gray Matter)
Even for the 2/3 of first responders who have not damaged their brains through substance abuse, the stress, cortisol and inflammation levels of their lifestyle should lead them to ask this key question: “What balance can we strike between food that is ‘satisfying’ and food that is anti-inflammatory; between low-cost, easy, tasteful food and restorative food?” In upcoming articles, we will look more closely at this nutritional question, both from the firefighter’s perspective and from the perspective of the nutritionist, on the search for healthful compromises.