A Furry Way to Help Vets with PTSD

Mental Health

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Check out this story of one of our veterans - Chris Ellis. During his time in the Army, Ellis lost many friends in battle and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when he returned home. He reported that his dog, which he got through a nonprofit called Stop Soldier Suicide, was the reason why he was able to overcome depression and suicidal thoughts.

According to Ellis, the dog came into his life last summer and his life hasn’t been the same since. Taking his dog out in public places made him feel more comfortable. He even said his dog could read the signs of an oncoming migraine and alert him that it was time to take his medication. His dog did more for him than any medication ever did and saved his life.

Ellis’s struggle with depression and PTSD is not unique. The PTSD Foundation of America reports that one in three returning troops are diagnosed with serious post-traumatic stress symptoms and less than 40% will seek help.

PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse or other anxiety disorders (National Institutes of Health).

The emotional trauma of war is not the only cause of PTSD. Traumatic brain injuries, which are very common in soldiers in the field, are also another major cause. And although depression is not always caused by trauma, it is very common for people with PTSD to experience symptoms of depression.

Just a few years ago, the Department of Veteran Affairs reported that about 20 veterans a day commit suicide!

So what do dogs have to do with PTSD?

A breakthrough study produced the first published research to use a physiological marker to define the biobehavioral effects of service dogs on veterans with PTSD. In other words, veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs.

The study measured the amount of cortisol, a steroid hormone often referred to as “the stress hormone,” in the saliva of veterans with PTSD who used service dogs compared to veterans with PTSD who did not use service dogs.

(The veterans who did not use service dogs were on a waitlist for dogs).

The veterans collected samples of their saliva both immediately after waking up in the morning and then about 30 minutes later.

“Non-PTSD, healthy adults experience an increase in cortisol after waking up,” the report says.

The PTSD veterans who used service dogs produced more cortisol in the morning.

“This pattern is closer to the cortisol profile expected in healthy adults without PTSD. Having a service dog was also associated with less anger, less anxiety, and better sleep," said one of the leads on the study.

More research is still needed, and service dogs are obviously not a cure for PTSD. But these findings show that dogs may be very beneficial when it comes to addressing the needs of our veterans - especially those with PTSD.

The reason why cortisol is usually called “the stress hormone” is because it is the main hormone involved in the body’s fight-or-flight response.

But cortisol is involved in so much more…

Cortisol also helps maintain blood pressure, regulate blood sugar, reduce inflammation and turn the food you eat into energy (National Institutes of Health).

Healthy people experience a 50 percent increase in levels during the first 20 to 30 minutes after waking up in the morning. Since cortisol levels are at their peak in the bloodstream, they promote alertness and help regulate the circadian rhythm,” according to one source.

Just to be clear, however, more cortisol is not always good.

You want to produce sufficient cortisol at certain times, such as in the morning or if you need to defend yourself from a physical threat. But if you are constantly stressed out and producing excess cortisol, this may cause some issues.

Reportedly, “...cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the ‘on’ position — cortisol may stay elevated.”

This is why several reports suggest cortisol may cause weight gain.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels may also cause high blood pressure, sleep issues, mood disorders and even contribute to diabetes, according to some reports.

Just like other hormones in your body, cortisol should be in balance.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can happen to anyone.

According to the NIH, PTSD affects 7.7 million American adults. Any traumatic event, including sexual assault, child abuse, natural disasters, fires, car accidents or bombings may cause PTSD.

So what else can people with post-traumatic stress disorder do?

  • Nutrition.

A proper diet with a sufficient intake of essential nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, may help you feel better if you suffer from depression (which can occur from having PTSD). These eight minerals, found in a variety of foods, may be of some help.

And one study found that the anti-inflammatory effect of blueberries may help with PTSD symptoms.

PTSD is associated with increased oxidative stress (OS) and inflammation in the brain, so eating anti-inflammatory foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, may help in general. 

  • Test, don’t guess.

It is highly advised to take a nutrient test in order to determine if you have a nutrient imbalance or deficiency. If you do, you can work with your doctor or a competent healthcare professional who may suggest changes in your diet and/or taking good quality supplements.

  • Get moving.

Various studies have also shown that exercise may help veterans with PTSD. Just an hour of exercise a week might help keep depression away.  

And trust me on this…

If you own a dog, you will more than likely exercise a lot more than just one hour a week. As a proud owner of five German Shepherds, I can attest to dogs being motivators of exercise. One of my favorite forms of exercise is hiking with one or two of my dogs. Exercising with dogs can really be enjoyable!

One study found that dog owners walk 22 minutes more per day than people who do not own dogs. Furthermore, the dog owners walked briskly and got their heart rates up (which is also great for cardiovascular health).

Dogs are really everyone’s friend.

Other than them being fun and ridiculously cute, there are many reasons to love dogs. As you can see, owning a dog may benefit your health in many ways such as reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease by providing social support and motivation for physical activity. The companionship a dog provides may boost your mood and relieve stress.

You have likely heard the saying, “Dogs are a man’s best friend.” And I couldn’t agree more.  I only wish I could make them be “everyone’s friend!”

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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