Military veterans and Biohacking

Authored by Robert Chen • 
July 11, 2017

Military veterans may have undergone unique environmental stressors that could benefit from supplementation from nootropics. While there have been very few studies looking at nootropic compounds in specific veteran populations, the science on the effects of nootropics on conditions relevant to military veterans is promising. In fact, statistically one in three veterans will develop a mental health or behavioral adjustment disorder in their lifetime after serving military duty.1In this article we cover important neuropsyhiatric conditions that are prevalent in the veteran population, and describe the influence of nootropics on these conditions.

Neuropsychiatric Concerns for military veterans

While the principles of biohacking for typical individuals still apply to veterans, there are some trends in veterans that should be worth mentioning.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans is high. Around 31% of Vietnam war veterans have PTSD. Around 20% of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD. The rate Gulf War veterans is lower, at around 10%. Th e rates should not be ignored, as the lifetime rate of PTSD in the general population is 8%.2Furthermore, the rate shoots up to 70% in returning veterans (those who serve in multiple assignments).3

Psychosis

Psychosis is sometimes present alongside PTSD (around 10% of patients who have PTSD will present with concurrent psychosis).3Psychosis may manifest itself in various ways, although one common manifestation is paranoia. For example, a veteran patient may be afraid of interacting with law enforcement officials and have the fear that the police are out to harm him. Some more severe patients may develop schizophrenia, and schizophrenia is sometimes misdiagnosed as PTSD with psychosis. One study in 769 veteran patients found that 45% of the PTSD patients had psychosis as well.4

Depression

The rate of depression among veterans is over 14%.1This is important because depression in general is associated with decreased cognitive capacity. Some common symptoms of depression include a persistently sad mood, lack of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, feelings of guilt, and recurrent thoughts of suicide or death.1

While there are limited studies in veterans, in healthy humans there is evidence that natural compounds can be helpful for improving cognitive abilities, which in general are helpful when undergoing depression.

Nootropics Relevant to Veterans

There is evidence that certain nootropics may be useful for modulating depression and stress, which are relevant to the veteran population. In particular, the nootropics theanine, ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea and N acetylcysteine have previously been shown to modulate stress responses and depressive symptoms.

The compound theanine is generally known to alleviate acute stres and chronic stress. In one study, theanine was shown to alter the expression of PTSD and stress related genes (8 genes spanning the amygdala and hippocampus) in a study on rats that were exposed to PTSD-inducing trauma.5In mice, L-theanine reversed the lifespan reduction, cognitive deficits, and behavioral depression associated with chronic stress.6In another study in mice, L-theanine was shown to reverse 3 stress-induced, depression-like phenotypes in mice.7

Another natural compound that has been shown to mitigate stress is ashwagandha.8Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels in adults. One particular study in 64 adults who had a history of chronic stress found that dietary supplementation with ashwagandha root extract twice daily for a period of 60 days resulted in significantly improved scores on stress-assessment scales (P<0.0001, n=64). Furthermore, the study reported that there were no significant adverse effects of taking ashwagandha, thus it demonstrates a strong safety profile. Furthermore, adults taking ashwagandha exhibited significantly lower serum levels of cortisol (a stress biomarker) compared to placebo.9In mice, ashwagandha was shown to significantly improve performance on the forced swim test (a measure of stress and depression) compared to placebo (P<0.01).10

Editorial Opinion

In general, we are optimistic about the scientific research surrounding relevant issues in veterans, including PTSD and psychosis. There is currently a very limited amount of research specifically in veteran populations, and more targeted studies would be helpful for understanding the effects of nootropics in the veteran population. If current research on mental disorders of interest hold true in the veteran population, this would carry tremendous value in care coordination in the veteran healthcare space.

  1. Duckworth, K. (2009). Depression and veterans fact sheet. Retrieved fro m http://www. nami. org/Template. cfm.

  2. Kessler, R. C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C. B. (1995). Posttraumatic stress disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of general psychiatry, 52(12), 1048-1060.

  3. OConghaile, A., & DeLisi, L. E. (2015). Distinguishing schizophrenia from posttraumatic stress disorder with psychosis. Current opinion in psychiatry, 28(3), 249-255.

  4. Kozaric-Kovacic, D., & Borovecki, A. (2005). Prevalence of psychotic comorbidity in combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Military Medicine, 170(3), 223-226.

  5. Ceremuga, T. E., Martinson, S., Washington, J., Revels, R., Wojcicki, J., Crawford, D., ... & Ceremuga, G. A. (2014). Effects of L-theanine on posttraumatic stress disorder induced changes in rat brain gene expression. The Scientific World Journal, 2014.

  6. Unno, K., Fujitani, K., Takamori, N., Takabayashi, F., Maeda, K., Miyazaki, H., . . . Hoshino, M. (2011). Theanine intake improves the shortened lifespan, cognitive dysfunction and behavioural depression that are induced by chronic psychosocial stress in mice. Free Radic Res, 45(8), 966-974. doi:10.3109/10715762.2011.566869

  7. Yin, C., Gou, L., Liu, Y., Yin, X., Zhang, L., Jia, G., & Zhuang, X. (2011). Antidepressant-like effects of L-theanine in the forced swim and tail suspension tests in mice. Phytother Res, 25(11), 1636-1639. doi:10.1002/ptr.3456

  8. Mishra, L. C., Singh, B. B., & Dagenais, S. (2000). Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review. Alternative medicine review, 5(4), 334-346.

  9. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255. Chicago

  10. Maiti, T., Adhikari, A., & Panda, A. (2012). A study on evaluation of antidepressant effect of Imipramine adjunct with Ashwagandha and Bramhi. International Journal of Ayurvedic Medicine, 3(1).

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