I remember the exact moment when thought “Man…I really need a new career”. I was 4 months pregnant and got into a knockdown, rolling-in-the-dirt kind of fight.
I was at work as a police officer. We got a call from a frantic mom that her 19-year-old son was out of control, punching walls and had just assaulted her. I was dispatched along with my favorite co-worker “Uncle Johnny”. At 62 years old, Uncle Johnny was a police veteran, seasoned hostage negotiator and loved by everyone. He’s the kind of guy that would swap funny stories with suspects as he transported them to jail (and probably a dirty joke or two!).
But Uncle Johnny was on his 3rd overtime shift making it a 7 day, 12 hour work week so far. He was exhausted from working too much, living on pork rinds and diet soda (his version of an Atkins Diet), getting zero exercise and no quality sleep. As for me, I was pregnant and in my second trimester.
And my department still had no idea what to do with me.
So, until they could make a decision (I was the first pregnant officer on patrol, so this was new territory), I still got up at 4:30 am to work my 12 hour shift. But all I really wanted to do was sleep, vomit and google anything related to baby.
Adding to the fun was the constant jabbing in my lower back from my duty belt, the strong urge to go to bathroom 2 minutes after I just went and losing any feelings in my legs from sitting in a cramped car for hours. So, I was definitely not in a position for this sudden workout as we wrestled a lean 19-year-old into handcuffs. Luckily, I only emerged with a big knot on my head as the suspect managed to slip in one head slam before Uncle Johnny ended it.
Having ‘mom’ record our incident and then later file a ‘use of force’ report just added to the unusually high amount of stress that police officers have to deal with every day.
It was right after this that I pursued my master’s degree in Nutrition. Then shortly after I received it, I retired. Not because I didn’t love Police work. But because after 20 years on the job, it took one tiny human to make me realize that being healthy and trying to stay alive was my new goal. Period.
This may seem overly melodramatic, but I assure you it’s not. It’s an example of just a regular shift on just a regular day. And the very reason I want to serve cops, firefighters and ER personnel as a Functional Nutritionist. Or as I call them – people not guaranteed a bathroom break.
If you filled in the Functional Medicine Tree, a typical First Responder’s “Lifestyle and Environmental Factors” would look like this:
- Sleep and relaxation – shift work, long hours and court dates = broken/no sleep. Working 18+ hours is not uncommon.
- Exercise/Movement – sitting is 95% of the job. Exercise is limited due to long and overtime shifts.
- Nutrition/Hydration – fast food is a staple with 7-11 or gas stations acting as the refrigerator of many meals. Hydration comes in the form of coffee and energy drinks.
- Stress/Resilience – Chronic/acute stress is ongoing due to the nature of the job. Resilience is continually weakened because most First Responders are too proud to ask for help or show signs of weakness.
- Relationships/Networks – Divorce is common [8,9]
- Trauma – witness to suffering and investigating violent crimes including those against children and the elderly is part of the job. This is a high contributor to police suicide as these scenes replay in your mind with no optional off button.
- Microorganisms/Environmental Pollutants – chronically exposed to chemicals, disease, toxins, decaying bodies, drugs, EMF signals, feces, etc. is also part of the job. There are certain smells that TV cop shows just can’t capture to make it real enough for me.
Many of these routines, “all in a day’s work” exposures have been directly linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease in Police Officers as well [4,5.]
First Responders are also a very unique group because their job is essentially to protect, serve and assist others. But when they need help themselves, they rarely reach out for it. From my personal experience, this is primarily due to the cultural tone within this group that view any weakness as a serious character flaw. So, it should be no surprise that it’s also a career characterized with high suicide rates1 and chronic disease [3.]
I can name several recent co-workers who fall into this including my fellow female detective who recently suffered a massive stroke at age 48 , a traffic officer diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer at 63, a young Firefighter with stage 4 cancer7 and even old Uncle Johnny who retired after suffering a CVD event. Even more tragic is that Police suicides continually surpass on-duty deaths [1, 2.]
So how can we help this group?
It will take some creativity to support First Responders with a Functional Nutrition and Lifestyle protocol because their situations are a bit unique.
Take sleep for example.
When I was deployed in the Marine Corps, my schedule looked something like this:
- 12 hours working as a radio operator (sitting) then 24 hours off. So, my bedtime would change by 12 hours every single day.
When I worked night shift as a police officer, my schedule may have looked like this:
- Up at 4pm. Start work at 6pm – 6am. Go to sleep by 7am and up again by 9:30 am to testify in court. Sleep for 2 hours then back to work at 6pm.
When I worked as a police detective, my schedule may have looked like this:
- Up at 4:30 am. Start work at 6am – 4pm. Go home and get called out to a scene at 11pm. Work until initial investigation is over and go back to work. It was not unusual to work 36 hours straight.
As a result of an unpredictable sleep schedule and high adrenaline atmosphere, there are also many who rely on sleep aids like Ambien.
Here are some suggestions that worked for me and have also helped others that operate within these unique restrictions.
SLEEP: Cultivating healthy sleep hygiene is especially critical due to irregular and long work schedule.
- Removing caffeine consumption (Starbucks is our lifeline) for the second half of their shift.
- No workouts including pre-workout supplements at the end of their shift.
- Taking time to decompress. This means making a focused effort to shift from caretaker role to self-care – without the use of alcohol, pharmaceuticals, stimulants (TV, video games) or inflammatory “comfort” foods.
- No screen time 1 hour before bed.
- Listening to a calming audio book in bed to help interrupt any disturbing or stressful thoughts preventing them from sleeping.
STRESS: We are trained to be in a state called “condition yellow” for the duration of our shift. This is to create an area of awareness for Officer safety reasons. Yes, this means the sympathetic response is constantly turned on by choice.
- Lean on tactical/mindful breathing enroute to calls or when they’re in a safe zone.
- Encourage them to reach out to peer support groups. Cultivate that “It’s cool to talk about it.”
- Find ways to fill their minds with joyful images/experiences during their days off.
MOVEMENT: After a long flight, do you feel all achy and stiff? Most First Responders are sitting all day long, mostly in a cramped vehicle.
- Volunteering for foot or bike patrol.
- Getting out of the patrol car every 60 minutes and walk, even if it’s just to stretch for 5 minutes.
- Doing more community policing, which requires walking.
- Taking advantage of any on-duty workout time. If there is none, working with the guild/union to have this negotiated into their contract.
DIET: It’s not uncommon to have a 12-hour shift bleed into a 18 hour shift. And there are limited healthy choices on night shift. Steering them towards a lower carb diet will automatically reduce the amount of 7-11 Slurpee’s, energy drinks and $5 Teriyaki specials.
- Always pack extra food. Especially ones that can sit in a patrol bag for a few days like nut butter, beef jerky, BulletProof bars and water.
- Grab a meal at a 24-hour grocery store. Some healthy choices are canned salmon, fresh fruit and vegetables, rotisserie chicken, clean deli meats and grass-fed cheese.
- Scan the menu for words like “grilled” that indicate less processed protein choices. Skip the sauces and higher carb items like rice or bread that will lead to a predictable crash right when the big call comes in. Replace it with stir-fried, grilled or roasted veggies, salads or soups.
- Most restaurants also offer salads. Pass on the croutons and any dried fruit. Load up on protein, veggies and olive oil instead.
SOCIAL: Divorce is common [8,9] I suspect it’s from long work hours and the feeling that their significant other just doesn’t understand what they’re going through so that connection becomes lost.
- There is no “us” vs “them” when it comes to family. Take that first uncomfortable step to cultivate a connection with loved ones. They’re probably waiting for you to do this.
- Get involved in a peer support group or local church. This allows you to share your experiences in a safe environment.
- Stop cruising social media. It’s an unrealistic snapshot of how citizens view this line of work. They actually support and appreciate you more than you think.
- Remember that all we have is the present moment. So, don’t put off spending time with those you love. You have vacation time. Use it.
My last big investigation was a shaken-baby case. My little slice of closure came with a conviction. Yet the photos, videos and interviews that I spent weeks meticulously reviewing still infects my thoughts. But I know my dedication to nutrition, quality sleep, strong relationships and regular movement during my 20-year career has spared me from a fate many of my brothers and sisters in blue, red and green have succumb to.
And this is also why I want to highlight and spearhead this grossly under-addressed crisis hiding within this sadly underserved circle.
It’s my hope that Functional Medicine practitioners will agree that it’s time to take care of the caretakers so that they can continue to stay strong on the front lines.
- 159 AMERICAN POLICE OFFICERS DIED BY SUICIDE IN 2018. (2018, December 31). Retrieved February 26, 2019, from https://bluehelp.org/158-american-police-officers-died-by-suicide-in-2018/
- Heyman, M., et al (2018, April). Study: Police Officers and Firefighters Are More Likely to Die by Suicide than in Line of Duty. Retrieved from https://rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/police-officers-and-firefighters-are-more-likely-to-die-by-suicide-than-in-line-of-duty/
- John M. Violanti, C. (2019). Life Expectancy in Police Officers: A Comparison with the U.S. General Population. [online] PubMed Central (PMC). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4734369/ [Accessed 26 Feb. 2019].
- Wirth, M., et al, (2013, April 1). The Epidemiology of Cancer Among Police Officers. Retrieved February 26, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3655699/
- Hartley TA, Burchfiel CM, Fekedulegn D, Andrew ME, Violanti JM. Health disparities in police officers: comparisons to the U.S. general population. Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2011;13(4):211-20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22900455
- Bothell firefighter with cancer fighting for a bigger cause. (2018, October 04). Retrieved from https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/bothell-firefighter-with-cancer-fighting-for-a-bigger-cause/281-600772538
- Haddock, Christopher, et al, “Marriage and Divorce Among Firefighters in the United States.” Journal of Family Issues, Apr. 2015, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0192513X15583070.
- McCoy, Shawn P., and Michael G. Aamodt. “A Comparison of Law Enforcement Divorce Rates with Those of Other Occupations.” Springer Link, Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 20 Oct. 2009, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11896-009-9057-8.
Janine’s a healthy skeptic who trusts the validity of science, the wisdom of nature and believes everyone deserves the right to personalized nutrition. Janine is a graduate of Dr. Fitzgerald’s nutrition residency program and has joined the Sandy Hook Clinic team as a staff nutritionist.
Janine Henkel was my student officer, beat partner, riot team partner, and one of the best detectives around. I never worried about being on a call with her, because I knew she had my six, and wouldn’t hesitate to jump into the fray. Janine was an advocate of good nutrition, proper amounts of sleep, and regular exercise from day one. We never knew what new concoction she would be bringing to our briefings for us to try, but I have to say that almost all were delicious, and good for you. She is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the general well being of first responders, and because of her career in law enforcement, she can speak from experience. For those who don’t know her, I will tell you that she is one of the kindest and most loving people on the planet, and was sorely missed when she left the Bothell P.D. to pursue her dreams. She was known as “Momma Henkel” to her fellow officers for a reason. Keep up the great work Momma, we are all so proud of what you’ve accomplished, and come visit us soon!
John “Uncle Johnny” Valentino
Wow- great to hear from the famous Uncle Johnny! We are all hoping you’ve moved on from the diet coke and pork rind meal 🙂 DrKF
Nice piece, very well written and meaningful. Thank you for putting in the time and effort to support those who give so much. We miss you here at the police department.
We appreciate having Janine on board with us here- we deeply support her mission. DrKF
Great article Henk! I’m hoping that we move towards 10 hr shifts and ‘hopefully’ get some time for us to workout at the beginning of shift. The younger generation of cops are better about eating well, but sleep is still a hot commidity. The other day, one of our PM shift officers got up 4 times during his sleep time, all to check his email for his on-call status for court. Flip-flopping from PM to AM shifts still happen all the time, and I’m getting ready to try and sleep tonight so Bobby can pick me up at 0500. (I’m currently on 1800-0600 PM shift). Then 2 days of training, one day off, then 4 nights of work.
You’re all too accurate about getting up to stretch/walk/move and or yoga out. I recently realized just how quicly I tightened up after a year of no PT test. I’m now adding stretching, core work, and cardio to my lifting.
Hope all’s well there. Keep up the great work!
Great write up on what is killing us more than bad guys. Having been a graveyard officer for most my career and now a graveyard supervisor every single one of these issues have popped up. I make it a point for myself to take care of each one and help coach and mentor my squad to do the same. I’m a big proponent of the mental health aspect of police work and working with officers that find themselves in their own crisis. Again fabulous write up on some very real issues that effect all of us.
Thanks for the article Janine. As a firefighter/paramedic I can really relate to allot of things you talk about. Our biggest issue I feel is having no real routine to fall back on. Our rest, diets, and food choices are often thrown up in the air and then we’re playing catch up on our off days. We love our 24 hour shift work, but in reality it may not be the best thing for our longterm health and wellness. As police officers do, we also see the worst things society have to offer on a regular basis, and well as folks dealing with horrible sickness and disease, and our exposure to communicable diseases catches up. Between my job, my wife’s as a flight attendant, and having two germ sponges in Elem and Middle school it’s amazing we’re not sick everyday. Thanks for the article!
I have been in various types of law enforcement, starting as a Military Policeman, Correctional Officer, City Police, State Patrol , Federal Agent and currently a uniformed federal officer. I’ll retire in a few years, giving me a total of 40 years in the career. With each move up the career latter, my “ ME” time went bye and bye. I had transferred back East from living out West. I gained 95 pounds in a year. I had a closet of clothes I couldn’t wear and actually conducted a job interview via Skype wearing a dress shirt and tie wearing a pair of shorts because I couldn’t fit into any of my dress suits anymore. Yeah, laugh, it’s funny, but I was miserably. At the same time every joint in my body was hurting. Not just in the mornings when I would get up, but all the time. I had to face the face the fact that I now needed a CPAP , and I blame it on the weight gain. So with all this going on, divorced for 5 years , Kids, dating a woman that was 2600 miles back West, working 70 hour weeks on my job ,putting 4000k plus miles a month on my patrol rig, I just kept getting more and more unhealthy. In October 2018, I said enough is enough and I started utililizing my hour a day for working out given to us. On that note, coming from a military background with 2 Marathons under my belt, beating anorexia in HS, late 20’s and 30’s as a power lifter , I had this weight loss in the bag….. Wrong…. I saw a post on Facebook one day from this retired California cop. Yes, it was you. My thoughts…..hmmm another California Granola.. lol. BUT, I read what she had to say and started looking up what she had to say. I have been following what Janine has put out there……BAM!.. 70lbs down, my workouts are pain free. Seriously… my joints feel like I did in my 20’s, my energy is off the charts and I feel absolutely awesome as I not only enjoy the weight loss that included 10 inches on my waist but all the changes. Did I mention the joint pain GONE! Excuse the grammar as I type with on my IPad. Janine, I hope the word gets out there more. It’s changed my thoughts on a way of eating and living that I would have never considered.
Great article, I have know Janine for many years. We worked for neighboring departments and she help me eat on this nding ways to eat better. I wasn’t always receptive to some of them, but would give it a try and even got surprised from time to time. She was a great officer and if she is half as great at her next adventure then she will be the one to listen to for advice and help. As a former police officer and military member I can tell you everything in her article is true, and maybe not stressed enough. Hours are long, stress is high, and adreline is turned off and on allot during a normal shift, from running code to chasing g someone down, to listening to another officer call for help knowing there is nothing you can do because your a 45+ minute code run away. Sleep, food and excerise is important if first responders want yo make a 20yr career.
Well written article Janine. I teach a 40-hour “Middle Management” class at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center. Normally we have a reading assignment on the first four nights of class. I made your article the assigned reading assignment for Monday night, followed by class discussion first thing Tuesday morning. (Today).
The class composition ranges from Sergeants all the way up to Police Chiefs and Sheriffs. This morning your article stimulated discussions ranging from healthy eating habits, health risks of sleep apnea, finding the intrinsic motivation of those employees who need intervention the most but resist it the most, as well as management’s role in creating “systems” that mitigate the adverse health impacts of the workplace, i.e. the comment by K. Smith regarding an employee who kept interrupting their sleep hours to check emails regarding a court appearance. The question posed to the class was, “As managers, can you create a different notification system that would interrupt the officers sleep hours ONLY if they were needed for court?” This was an example of an adverse health impact created by a system created by management, and with the awareness of the adverse impact, management can certainly create a different system.
The point of the reading assignment was illustrated by the last comment made during the discussion. One student mentioned how they got push-back from “management” when they wanted to create a new workout space in the workplace. That was the purpose of the assignment, to have them understand as either current or future managers, they can control and improve the systems already in place that adversely impact employee health, and when employees make health-related suggestions, to NOT BE the “management” that pushes back.
All-around great discussion stimulated by a well-written article. Thanks.
Thanks Captain Bob. I do appreciate your never ending encouragement for patrol to hit the PD gym. Your face to face connections in briefing were always appreciated too. I have lots of fun memories working out in the PD gym with everyone (and hilarious mental images of us doing our version of CrossFit while listening to old rock and roll).