Training to Combat Stress
Professionals in high-stress occupations, such as firefighters or military personnel, can often still be at risk of illness or injury long after the most dangerous parts of the job have passed. This is because environmental stressors related to their occupation — including exposure to heat and smoke, strenuous physical activity for long hours and erratic sleep schedules — all contribute to a medical condition known as oxidative stress: the presence of excessive free radicals, small free-floating particles that can cause damage to cells, in the body. This condition has been linked to diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and more. In fact, firefighters have the highest rates of cardiovascular disease by occupation in the United States, likely due to their exposure to oxidative stress. To address this issue, a new lab in the Texas State Department of Health and Human Performance led by Dr. Matt McAllister is developing exercise and dietary interventions to combat stress to improve health and performance.
To measure the presence of free radicals in the body and test potential treatments, the lab team uses advanced equipment and methods. Blood samples are collected and treated in the Metabolic and Applied Physiology (MAP) laboratory. After appropriate treatment, the samples are stored in a special freezer at negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and subsequently analyzed for various markers of inflammation and oxidative stress. Other equipment in the MAP lab allows for collection and analysis of exhaled gasses during exercise, which can also be used to provide useful information that reflects exercise performance and overall health. Graduate students participate in every step of observation, data collection, and analysis and have produced journal articles and conference presentations showing the early results of the research.
In some tests, firefighters enter a building heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit for an exercise involving removing 100-to-200-pound dummies from the burning building.
Outside of the lab, McAllister and fellow researchers have worked with firefighters during their training process — performing “controlled burns” and “simulated fire ground tests.” In some tests, firefighters in full gear enter a building where the internal temperature has been elevated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and perform a “victim search and clear” exercise, wherein they encounter obstacles and must remove several 100-to-200-pound dummies from the burning building. In the less intensive simulations, firefighters in full gear drag hoses, carry victims or ladders, and perform other tasks a firefighter may be typically expected to experience in the line of duty. Firefighters’ health and metabolic biomarkers are monitored throughout the process to better inform researchers of what is happening within the bodies of these highly trained professionals.
McAllister came to Texas State University in August 2018 to build the MAP lab and advance the science of understanding workplace stress and its effects on the body. Current work in the lab focuses on collecting and analyzing the various indicators of metabolic health and looking for signs of oxidative stress and the damage it can cause. Future studies will be aimed at identifying and reducing the impacts of toxic stress, so that the people who work to keep us safe can remain strong and healthy long after they’ve completed their service.