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Veterans go toe-to-toe with PTSD in new research

Marcus Butler

16 October 2017: The key to combating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could be in the boxing ring.

Researchers at the University of Canberra are calling on military veterans and former emergency services personnel to pull on the gloves and step into a boxing ring to help investigate how high-intensity exercise can combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The project, will measure the effects of a boxing training session on biomarkers of the stress and inflammatory response.

These include saliva tests for the stress hormone, cortisol and heart rate variability. The latter two provide insights into the “fight or flight” stress response and a second saliva test looking for signs of inflammation within the body.

Honours student Katie Speer is leading the project under the supervision of Associate Professor of Sport & Exercise Science Dr Andrew McKune.

Ms Speer said that it was important to understand how the stress and inflammatory systems respond to and recover after exercise in individuals living with PTSD.

“Research shows that appropriate, regulated stress responses are important for health, but dysregulated stress levels which have been found in people with PTSD are associated with inflammation in the body,” Ms Speer said.

“Inflammation has been associated with the development of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease. By having our participants jump into a boxing training session we put their bodies under stress, and it’s quite intensive exercise so we would expect to see changes in the stress and inflammatory biomarkers.

“Cortisol is a major player in our fight-or-flight response and not only plays a role in increasing our energy levels but also plays a role in the formation of memories.”

Ms Speer said the role of cortisol in building memories was akin to  being chased by a lion.

“If your fight-or-flight response is triggered and you do survive it pays, biologically, to be able to remember what you did to escape or fight off the lion,” she said.

“Cortisol helps supercharge our memory. Ironically, elevated levels of cortisol can impede our memory recall.”

Dr McKune said that cortisol management in people with PTSD appears to be impeded.

“In most people it will rise and fall in response to a stress stimulus and its release during the day follows a regular rhythm, rising in the morning and then decreasing gradually throughout the day,” Dr McKune said.

“What you tend to find in people living with PTSD, is that this diurnal rhythm is reduced and this may have an impact on their health.

“Our study looks at stress levels and inflammation before and immediately after a 20 minute training session and then again 24 and 48 hours later.”

He also said boxing was a great choice of exercise for this type of testing.

“We had a lot of feedback around the kind of high-intensity exercise for this study, and boxing was chosen because it appeals to a lot of military and first responders,” he said.

“Not only is it a good upper body workout prompting a stress response quickly, but it also teaches people a new skill, imparting a sense of mastery and accomplishment.”

The study is currently underway at the University of Canberra and the researchers are appealing for military veterans and first responders aged 45-70 with or without PTSD.

People interested in joining the study can contact Dr McKune -