The Hidden Brain Syndrome Facing Firefighters
Firefighters routinely put themselves in harm’s way by battling urban blazes and wildfires. But the flames aren’t the only danger they face. Breathing in carbon monoxide and other toxins, repeated exposure to emotional trauma, and the possibility of head injuries put them at increased risk of unhealthy brain function.
Brain imaging studies on a group of 50 of firefighters performed at Amen Clinics show troubling findings:
- 67% show evidence of head trauma
- 63% show evidence of moderate toxicity
- 45% show evidence of chronic emotional trauma
- 40% show evidence of ADHD
All of these brain issues increase the likelihood of mental, behavioral, and cognitive problems, but few firefighters are aware of this.
How Head Injuries Cause Lasting Harm
Falling off the ladder, structure collapse, traffic collisions involving emergency vehicles—firefighters are at risk for head trauma. It is estimated that up to 15% of all firefighter injuries are head injuries. That amounts to over 4,000 head injuries a year, and the number could actually be much higher since many first responders may not think their injury is significant enough to report.
But concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)—even if they don’t cause you to lose consciousness—can lead to problems in the following weeks, months, and years. Research shows that head trauma increases the risk of depression, anxiety and panic disorders, ADD/ADHD, drug and alcohol abuse, psychosis, chronic emotional trauma and stress, borderline and antisocial personality disorders, dementia, and suicide. But since psychiatrists rarely look at the organ they treat, first responders may not be aware that this is the root cause of their issues.
When Toxins Attack the Brain
Firefighters can be exposed to many toxins, including carbon monoxide, benzene, asbestos, and diesel exhaust. Statistics from a 2018 report from the National Fire Protection Association show that there were an estimated 44,530 exposures to hazardous conditions, such as radioactive materials, chemicals, and fumes.
There is growing concern that exposure to such chemicals is increasing rates of cancer among first responders. But this exposure poses another dangerous threat that isn’t getting enough attention—toxic brain.
The brain is the most metabolically active organ in the human body. As such, it is extremely vulnerable to damage from toxins, and having a toxic brain is linked to depression, ADD/ADHD, learning problems, memory problems, brain fog, autism, temper outbursts, psychotic behavior, and suicide.
On brain SPECT scans, which measure blood flow and activity in the brain, a toxic brain looks like a “Swiss cheese” brain that is full of holes. The “holes” reflect areas with low blood flow and are a sign of an unhealthy brain. It looks like their brains have been poisoned.
How Exposure to Trauma Affects the Brain
First responders witness some horrific incidents, but “they’re actually trained to stuff it, to push it down,” according to Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod, a psychotherapist and trainer to first responders. In an episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast, Bohl-Penrod said their training dictates, “Don’t let it bother you. Get over it as quickly as you can, because you’re going to go on another call.” In response to the repeated exposure to trauma, she’s seen firefighters develop mild depression, become more short-fused, turn to alcohol, and withdraw from their families.
These issues are related to abnormal activity in the brain. Brain imaging scans show that chronic exposure to trauma is associated with overactivity in the emotional brain, which is known as the limbic system. When there is too much activity in this brain region, it’s linked to depression, anger, and social isolation. People may also drink more because alcohol calms the overactivity.
A Look at Firefighter Steven’s Brain
At age 32, Steven was a firefighter who was suffering from depression, brain fog, and symptoms of unrelenting trauma. During his evaluation, Steven asked, “How can I deal with the trauma? I wish I could forget what my eyes have seen, from children being burned to losing whole families in car crashes and fires.”
Steven’s brain scan showed that his emotional brain—the limbic system—was working way too hard, plus he also had evidence of toxic exposure, likely from breathing carbon monoxide and the poisonous chemicals released from burning furniture. These biological problems in his brain were the root cause of the mental and cognitive issues that plagued him.
Why Firefighters Don’t Seek Help
Studies show that first responders, such as firefighters, are at an elevated risk of trauma, depression, heavy drinking, and suicide. Unfortunately, research shows that they are less likely to seek help because of the stigma associated with having a mental illness, fearing they will be labeled as weak or unfit for duty. Their professions have convinced them that they are supposed to be superheroes, so they just suck it up. Because of this, they continue to suffer in silence.
How a Brain-Based Approach to Treatment Changes Everything
Brain imaging shows that psychiatric issues have a biological basis. In Steven’s case, seeing his scan helped him understand that his “mental health” problems were really “brain health” problems related to toxic exposure and trauma. Rather than thinking his issues were due to some character flaw or weakness, he now viewed them as medical, not moral. This motivated him to get serious about improving his brain health. Within 6 months of following a program designed to optimize his brain, help him deal with trauma, and enhance his body’s ability to flush out toxins, he felt much better and his brain was healthier.
There is no need to suffer in silence. At Amen Clinics, we have helped hundreds of firefighters and other first responders overcome the psychiatric symptoms associated with an unhealthy brain. Whether you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, brain fog, or other symptoms, we offer brain-based treatment programs that use the least toxic, most effective solutions tailored to your needs.
Call 888-288-9834 to speak with a specialist today or schedule a visit online.