Women Veterans, PTSD, and Heart Disease

National Institute of Heath

In my research to learn more about my own health, I learned that there have been studies conducted that in fact have confirmed that women veterans are at risk of heart disease. And I know exactly why considering I am one of them. I too was red flagged by the VA for being at risk of heart disease because my cholesterol was high. I was also red flagged for being at risk of diabetes.

The journey began with a referral to a Veteran Affairs nutritionist to learn how to eat better because like every doctor, article, and opinion I read, in order to reduce the risk of heart disease, we have to eat healthy and exercise. Seems like a simple fix, right? Well for women veterans suffering with combat PTSD and/or PTSD as a result of military sexual assault, IT IS NOT.

The depression and anxiety that come with PTSD as a result of military service is intense.  There are a lot of contributing factors that compound the PTSD making it that much more overwhelming. Losing my career for seeking help for the aftermath of multiple sexual assaults while serving is what sent me over the edge. It was my breaking point. I quite literally couldn’t move off my couch for years trying to process all of the trauma I had endured and tried to bury to safeguard my military career. After fourteen years, I did not have the energy to fight for my military career because of PTSD.

During the medical retirement process in 2009 and since, I had all I could do to get out of bed or off the couch. I lived in the basement of my 2,700 square foot three bedroom house for years. I was severely depressed. And my mind was spinning out of control trying to make sense of it all. The depression and anxiety is paralyzing. I literally had gone from a fully functioning soldier to feeling too scared to even leave the house. I woke up every morning with my stomach in knots and had all I could do to eat because I felt nauseous.

My yearly lab results at the VA reflected my lack of activity and wrong food choices. Going to the nutritionist was helpful but eating and getting to the grocery store regularly was the problem. I had no appetite to eat because my stomach was in knots. I had no energy to go to the store to buy the proper foods. As a result, I would make one big shopping trip and bought foods that lasted, which are the unhealthy processed foods. Eventually, I stopped going to the grocery store all together and my husband assumed the sole responsibility.

I needed fresh fruits and vegetables but at the time I only ate when starving and my food choices were quick and easy then back to the couch. I didn’t even have the energy to stand in the kitchen and cook. I was lucky that I had a husband who saw me struggle and as a way to show his love made me supper every night and quite literally made me eat. He was kind about it and simply said, “you need your nutrition.” It wasn’t enough but at least I ate once a day. Some women veterans may have no one to help them.

It took awhile to lower my cholesterol and get my lab results to reflect that I was no longer at risk for diabetes but I finally did it in the fall of 2014. It started with that visit to the VA nutritionist but I wasn’t able to pull it off until I dealt with the underlying causes of the PTSD. It wasn’t until my head was no longer spinning and my body didn’t feel stuck in fight or flight before I could finally take the steps necessary to take care of myself. It was a long journey.

In the spring of 2014, I started doing all the grocery shopping. In the summer of 2014, I started walking my service dog almost every day as a way to incorporate fitness. I started with 2 miles and built up to four miles. In the fall of 2014, I started to dabble with learning how to cook. I looked up recipes of things that looked good and did the best I could. Unfortunately, the experience was completely overwhelming and anxiety producing which triggered my PTSD. It was frustrating that I went from the queen of multi-tasking in the military to cannot even handle three different things in the kitchen without having a melt down. I felt like I was starting over and learning to live with the limitations of my disability.

I did a lot of research on health in 2014 and learned that women veterans are at risk of heart disease. It struck me because they were talking about my situation. The risk of heart disease is a direct result of the PTSD. I was too depressed to stay active daily and I was so riddled with anxiety, I had no appetite to eat.  I think the most important thing that I learned in my research is that we need a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. My Fitness Pal helped me understand this which then helped me make better food choices. I tracked my food intake and forced myself to eat throughout the day.

After awhile the knowledge begins to build on itself and I began to slowly incorporate healthier habits. As a result my cholesterol went back down and my risk for diabetes is gone. I did it naturally with a healthier diet and daily exercise despite the VA doctor’s recommendation that I take a pill for my cholesterol. It can be done but it was easier with the knowledge of what I needed to eat daily. Because of the understanding of what foods I need to eat daily, it also makes things less overwhelming both at the grocery store and in the kitchen. I go to the store with a list and most of the foods we need are on the outside of the store. I go to the kitchen to snack and grab the food item that I know I need in order to maintain a healthy heart.

I still struggle with having to force myself to eat during the day because although the knots in my stomach are not as strong as before, they still persist. I think I have just retrained my body to accept the food now. And I make myself stay active with the use of a Fitbit. It helps me track how much activity I get throughout the day and helps me stay on track with what is recommended for heart health. I had to slowly build up my fitness activity. I started with simply walking and then built up to aerobics and then strength training. And come to find out these activities help alleviate PTSD symptoms too.

Eating healthier and activity has helped maintain my fitness and does alleviate PTSD symptoms. Some days all I can manage is eating and getting my fitness in. But, that is step up from where I was a year ago. I feel healthy and strong now which gives me more energy. I use the healthy habits to counteract the depression and anxiety. Cooking keeps me off the couch and exercise helps alleviate anxiety. Now that I understand what my body needs for food and activity to function best, I feel less overwhelmed and more willing to take the steps to a healthier lifestyle.

Related Links:
Study investigates heart disease and female veterans
Female Veterans Develop CVD Risk Factors at Younger Ages
Women Veterans at Risk for Heart Disease; VA Seeks to Raise Awareness
Cardiovascular disease risk factors among women veterans at VA medical facilities
Female Veteran Heart Patients Tend to Be Younger, Obese, More Depressed

3 thoughts on “Women Veterans, PTSD, and Heart Disease

  1. God bless you Jen!

    Psalms 27:14

    Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD.

  2. Hi Jen, remember me? I’ve struggled so much since we met. We should talk. Anyway, on 2/16/18 I was diagnosed with heart failure at 54. No heart disease in the past I know it correlates to my PTSD and all that goes with it. I’ve been denied by VBA although I AM 60% service connected for PTSD. Any suggestions? Tracy Stein, USMC 1984-1988 PTSD/MST

    1. I’m doing more research on this to help me find more scientific ways of tackling heart disease. I struggle with high cholesterol and have to work hard to keep it down and in check. Ptsd created this mess in our bodies because of high levels of cortisol.

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