According to the National Center for PTSD, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a traumatic event. A traumatic event is a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood.” 1
As implied in that definition, most of us think of PTSD as an extreme condition affecting soldiers and those exposed to dramatic violence. But in fact, some schools of thought argue that PTSD is far more common than previously thought. Betrayed spouses, for instance, who discover their partner’s sexual addiction in some shocking way may develop PTSD symptoms, perhaps accounting for the fact that PTSD affects about two times more women than men.2 The numbers tell the story: the condition affects over 24 million in the US annually. At some point in their lives about 44 million will have a PTSD issue.3
A PTSD diagnosis inspires doctors to whip out their prescription pads. Antidepressants are particularly favored, but as we’ve discussed before, antidepressants have many dangerous side-effects and very often don’t do a thing to help alleviate patient symptoms. In fact, a study cited by the Carlat Psychiatry Report notes that 80 percent of any reported improvement in PTSD symptoms among those taking antidepressants is likely due to the placebo effect.4
Anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium also get prescribed frequently, in spite of their addictive qualities and potential to cause side effects like amnesia, hallucinations, birth defects, and death.5 There’s also a hypertension medication called “Prazosin” that blocks the release of adrenalin, and it’s commonly used off-label to help trauma PTSD sufferers with nightmares get some sleep.6 Again, side effects abound. Of these pharmaceuticals, only the SSRI-type antidepressants Zoloft and Paxil are officially approved by the FDA for post-traumatic stress disorder.
What other PTSD-intervention techniques exist? Certain forms of psychotherapy seem to be quite helpful. Yoga, acupuncture, and various other energy-psychology healing methods may help, as well.
And then, there are blueberries.
Blueberries for PTSD? According to studies conducted by the team of Dr. Philip Ebenezer at Louisiana State University, when rats with PTSD were fed blueberries (goodness knows how the scientists induced rat trauma), they had increased levels of serotonin in their brains compared to PTSD rats on a blueberry-free diet. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and mood regulator—a feel-good chemical in the brain. One of the hallmarks of PTSD is neurotransmitter imbalance, which is why pharmaceutical antidepressants, which also work by increasing serotonin, are considered the drugs of choice.7 But the SSRI antidepressants also increase a different type of neurotransmitter called norepinephrine (NE), and studies indicate that NE actually interferes with serotonin uptake.
The researchers wanted to know if blueberries might increase serotonin levels without the NE effect, and so they examined the brains of the rats on the two-percent blueberry diet. Sure enough, those rodents on the blueberry diet did indeed have the serotonin bump without any added NE, indicating that blueberries just might be superior to antidepressants as a PTSD treatment. Of course, the scientists couldn’t ask the rats if they were feeling better or free from flashbacks, but the brain chemicals did look good. Also, it’s not a given that what works for rat brains will also work for humans, given that results only translate to humans about 20% of the time. But the results are still interesting—and suggestive.
In any case, the research team investigated the blueberry effect further, recruiting yet another swarm of rats. This time, the investigators wanted to know if blueberries could affect the expression of SKA2 genes in traumatized rats.8 Past studies investigating brain chemistry in suicide victims have shown that the SKA2 gene expresses in abnormally low levels in those who kill themselves. The scientists found that rats with PTSD also had low SKA2 levels, and so they fed them the human equivalent of two cups of blueberries daily.
As noted in the study report, “In the PTSD animals, there was a decrease in the SKA2 levels in the blood, as well as in the brain’s prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, compared to non-PTSD rats. Since these levels increased when we fed them blueberries, the findings suggest that a nonpharmacological agent like blueberries can have an effect on the expression of this important gene.”
The research team is continuing its blueberry investigations. You can bet that by the time they take it to the human arena, it won’t manifest in the form of a prescription for a pint of blueberries. Rather, some drug relying on blueberry extract plus other chemicals will be sold at prescription-drug prices. Savvy readers with PTSD symptoms don’t have to wait for the pharmaceutical version, but can seek immediate relief in the fruit aisle of the local supermarket. Remember to buy only organic! And for those who don’t want to eat two-cups of blueberries a day, there are high-quality blueberry supplements that may do the trick.