August 30, 2009

Special Forces- Science Explains Their Reaction To Stress

This is a very interesting article about why some people handle stress better than others do. Dr. Andy Morgan of Yale Medical School conducted research to determine why some people handle stress better than others do.

His research took him to Fort Bragg which where the Army's elite Airborne and Special Forces school is located. Let's take a look at an excerpt from the article.

"For Morgan, POW school was the perfect place to study who survives the best under acute stress. If you think it's just training and the soldiers know they're not really in serious danger, consider what Morgan discovered. During mock interrogations, the prisoners' heart rates skyrocket to more than 170 beats per minute for more than half an hour, even though they aren't engaging in any physical activity. Meanwhile, their bodies pump more stress hormones than the amounts actually measured in aviators landing on aircraft carriers, troops awaiting ambushes in Vietnam, skydivers taking the plunge or patients awaiting major surgery. The levels of stress hormones are sufficient to turn off the immune system and to produce a catabolic state, in which the body begins to break down and feed on itself. The average weight loss in three days is 22 pounds.

Morgan's research—the first of its kind—produced some fascinating findings about who does the best job resisting the interrogators and who stays focused and clearheaded despite the uncontrollable fear. Morgan looked at two different groups going through this training: regular Army troops like infantrymen, and elite Special Forces soldiers, who are known to be especially "stress hardy" or cool under pressure. At the start or base line, the two groups were essentially the same, but once the stress began, and afterward, there were significant differences. Specifically, the two groups released very different amounts of a chemical in the brain called neuropeptide Y. NPY is an abundant amino acid in our bodies that helps regulate our blood pressure, appetite, learning and memory. It also works as a natural tranquilizer, controlling anxiety and buffering the effects of stress hormones like norepenephrine, one of the chemicals that most of us simply call adrenaline. In essence, NPY is one of the fire hoses that your brain uses to extinguish your alarm and fear responses by keeping the frontal-lobe parts of your brain working longer under stress.

Morgan found one very specific reason that Special Forces are superior survivors: they produce significantly greater levels of NPY compared with regular troops. In addition, 24 hours after completing survival training, Special Forces soldiers returned to their original levels of NPY while regular soldiers were significantly below normal."

So if this NPY serves as a sort of natural anti-anxiety drug I have to ask the obvious question. Can we find a way to produce it? Maybe I am being naive, but from a laymen's perspective it sounds like it could be a great resource for people. It might allow some people to stop taking their meds.

Another part of the article that I thought was interesting is the section in which they discussed heart rate variability. Take a look at this:
It turns out that the best survivors don't have a lot of heart-rate variability. Instead, they've got "metronomic heartbeats"—their hearts thump steadily like metronomes—with almost no variability between beats. That is, the intervals between the beats are evenly spaced. Morgan believes that a metronomic heartbeat is an easy way to detect good survivors and high neuropeptide Y releasers. It makes sense biologically because your brainstem, which controls your heartbeat, has a high density of neuropeptide Y.
Part of what I found interesting was that the article says that metronomic heartbeat is associated with early heart disease and sudden death. So there is a question about whether this is really a benefit. It is good if you are a soldier or in some sort of very stressful profession.

But if it is tied to heart disease the negative can potentially outweigh the positive. Nice to stay calm, but not at the expense of not living past fifty.

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