by Sarah Crain, Executive Director
HOW Foundation of South Florida

As civilians, we cannot fathom the trauma that those who serve our country go through (sometimes on an ongoing daily basis). Veterans experience trauma overseas, and our first responders experience it on our own soil. “Trauma” does not discriminate against whom it affects (though recent studies are now indicating there is a genetic predisposition to developing post-traumatic stress). A high percentage of people who experience post-traumatic stress turn to unhealthy coping methods: sometimes, they become binge eaters. Other times, they misuse drugs and alcohol.

In the brain, we have two types of basic cells: neurons and glia. These cells communicate with each other by both chemical and electrical signals. At an elementary level, think of electrical signals as a proverbial racecar, and the chemical signals as gateways. The racecar cannot pass through a gateway if the gateway is closed. The chemical signals open (or close) the gateways. Behind every motion of the human body is a series of electrical signals that had to be processed in order to execute that movement.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that alcohol’s effects on the brain are quite profound, and that there can be both short-term and long-term effects of alcohol consumption. Short-term effects that we notice are dizziness, nausea, slurring of speech, and difficulty walking (to name a few). But what is really happening in the brain to cause this observable change in behavior?

When alcohol is consumed, the alcohol molecules are diffused into the bloodstream (and therefore, circulated through the body) at a very fast pace. The molecular structure of alcohol mimics the exact form of one of the chemical signalers in the brain: gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This chemical signal is one of the two chemical signals in the brain that closes gateways. Because the alcohol molecules block the receptor areas where the GABA are normally detected, alcohol allows those gateways to remain open (thereby allowing the racecar electrical signals to pass through without being stopped). These unregulated gateways are what cause us to lose control over our bodies when we drink.

Sometimes, our unregulated actions can get us into trouble. We do things that we later regret. I met Don Prince at the Delray Beach Chamber. He is a former Long Island Fire Chief, who served at Ground Zero on 9/11, and he is a remarkable human being. The trauma he experienced during 9/11 left him coping by turning to a bottle for thirty years. It cost him his job. Don did not allow his trauma to continue governing him; he made a remarkable turnaround and has been living sober for over three years. Now that he has found his place in this world, he is reaching out to help others find theirs; he runs a local rehabilitation center (Station House Retreat) for First Responders who are also coping with their post-traumatic stress by turning to substance abuse.

Recognizing Don would be a good candidate for hyperbaric oxygen therapy, I offered him a treatment regiment of 40 hyperbaric sessions. The sessions were funded by the HOW Foundation of South Florida, a local nonprofit, that helps veterans and first responders who are suffering from traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress and provides them with hyperbaric oxygen therapy grants. Don told us that he immediately felt more focused after his hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) sessions. He described the treatments as, “relaxing and soothing. Wrapped in warm blankets and soft pillows, you drift off into a peaceful state and escape—not even realizing that your body is healing from inside out just from breathing in the oxygen.”

As revolutionary as this treatment may seem, the United States is not the first country to explore this realm of healing: the United Kingdom has been using hyperbaric oxygen for over 5 years to treat individuals who have been suffering from physical damage caused by long-term alcohol or drug misuse. Notably, HBOT is best used for patients who are not actively using and who are in long-term recovery. HBOT helps correct this damage by increasing natural stem cell production and circulation, as well as by the anti-inflammatory nature of HBOT. HBOT also helps white blood cells eliminate bad bacteria, and helps blood vessels regenerate in areas where tissue has been damaged. HBOT accelerates the body’s natural ability to heal, and it can help reverse the effects of both short- and long-term alcohol misuse.

About the Author: Sarah was appointed the Executive Director of the HOW Foundation of South Florida in 2014. Before joining the HOW Foundation, Sarah completed an MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. Her passion to help improve the quality of life for others compelled her to return to the United State and enter the nonprofit sector. Reporting to the Board of Directors, Sarah has the overall strategic and operational responsibility for HOW Foundation staff, programs, expansion, and execution of its mission. You may contact Sarah through email.

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