PENSACOLA, Fla. (NNS) -- An aerospace physiologist at the U.S. Navy's premier facility for aeromedical training is engaged in a yearlong study of the effects of dietary supplements - particularly readily available energy drinks - on service members.
Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Sather, MSC, the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute (NAMI) training department head has been studying the effects of energy drinks on pilots and aircrew for three years in an effort to understand the effect these beverages can have on a pilot's ability to control the aircraft.
"Military aviation requires special levels of kinesthetic awareness, strength, endurance, eye-hand coordination and timing," Sather said. "Similar to highly competitive athletes, aviators often turn to nutritional supplements in attempts to enhance performance, and more research needs to be done on commonly used energy beverages [drinks and shots] in order to optimize human performance while ensuring safety in an aviation environment."
According to Sather, the study which is his doctoral dissertation, centers around examining the physiological effects of energy product consumption on gross motor reflexes, fine motor skills and on the execution of simulated emergency procedures, each of which he maintains are crucial aspects of controlling a military aircraft.
Sather said that with an estimated 73 percent of Americans taking supplements, an estimated 60-80 percent of military personnel are using some form of these as well; and with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not treating these as drugs or even food products, it is imperative these products be examined.
He added that energy drinks are generally marketed to younger people as a method of combatting fatigue and enhancing performance; an estimated 66 percent of the $12.5 billion industry's consumers are aged 13-35, the prime age for the majority of naval aviators. The effects of these products need to be determined before allowing their use in military aviation.
"Imagine for a moment you are driving your car on an icy road and you hit a patch of ice and start to skid. Your initial reflex to get yourself out of the skid is to jerk the wheel (hopefully) in the direction of the turn," Sather said. "What would happen if you were so amped up on energy shots that you overcorrect and turn the skid into an uncontrolled spin? That is what we are concerned about happening [the loss of control] in the aircraft. As flying is an inherently dangerous activity, we don't want our pilots and aircrew to be flying under the influence of these beverages if it may put them in a dangerous situation where they are impeded from bringing the aircraft back under control or are unable to run a checklist quickly and correctly when under duress."
NAMI, an organization under the Navy Medicine Operational Training Center (NMOTC) designed to provide aeromedical consultation services and train aeromedical personnel for operational assignments, serves as a crossroads for every U.S. naval aviator; each aviator, aviation candidate and aviation specialist will train or be cleared to fly through the facility.
Sather said this commonality is befitting his ongoing research, saying the sheer number of potential studies, the age range of candidates and the intensity of the training cycle coincide with the research he has been doing.
"NAMI touches aviation in so many ways that I feel truly fortunate to be able to conduct such research," Sather said. "For me, it is a no brainer. NMOTC in general and NAMI in particular is tasked with keeping the fleet safe. We just strive to take care of our shipmates any way we can."
Sather also said that some energy products like energy drinks and popular weightlifting pre-workout supplements have been anecdotally linked to a series of catastrophic outcomes throughout the Department of Defense. Enough evidence, he said, that thorough evaluation of these products need to be conducted.
Sather said that in 2011, four soldiers died following physical exercise after consuming a common pre-workout supplement; a report showed that high doses of a popular workout supplement, DMAA, was associated with four patients with cerebral hemorrhages; a report revealed that a 24-year old male developed hypertension and acute heart failure one hour after ingestion of a popular pre-workout product and another report stated that a 32-year-old special operations Sailor experienced an episode of transient atrial fibrillation with rapid ventricular response after consuming a product with DMAA and caffeine.
"As nutritional supplements and products that contain nutritional supplements are so pervasive, research has to be performed to determine the safety of these products in aviation," Sather said. "Given that energy products such as energy drinks and energy shots are routinely sold in convenience stores, these pose the greatest risk of use by aviators."
Sather's three-year study, scheduled for final presentation in 2016, has ultimately contributed to the establishment of a NAMI policy which defines what nutritional supplements are authorized for use by all USN/USMC aviation personnel. He added these guidelines may also be applied as a guide for supplements to all participants in high-risk training, as governed by an OPNAV instruction.
"With the increase in popularity of these energy drinks, we are seeing more and more unanticipated effects in people who take them" Sather said.
Sather stated that in 2000, an 18-year-old basketball player died in the middle of a game after drinking two energy drinks, and in 2010, a 19-year-old died after drinking a half a can of a popular energy drink.
The Department of Health and Human Services reported that 20,783 patients visited the emergency room because of energy drink consumption in 2011, a 37 percent increase from the previous year. The American Association of Poison Control Centers adopted codes in late 2010 to start tracking energy drink overdoses and side effects nationwide, and from February 2011 to October 2012, found more than 1,000 cases reported.
Although still forming opinions about the effects of energy drinks on naval aviation personnel, Sather has used his own research - as well as data from peer reviewed journals - in arriving at some preliminary conclusions about energy drinks.
"The ingredients themselves are generally accepted as safe. However, we just don't know what we don't know about how all the ingredients interact with each other. Given the quantity of the ingredients [sometimes up to 8000 percent of the recommended daily allowance] and quality of the manufacturing process used by many of these nutrition companies, you never know what you are getting. It is ironic that we have cases where generally accepted as safe supplements have had adverse effects on pilots and aircrew."
Although Sather's dissertation is for personal use, his findings could impact pilots around the world. He maintains, however, that his primary mission echoes both NAMI and NMOTC's mission - ensuring pilots are trained, capable and safe.
"In order to keep aviators safe, we need to know what these nutritional supplement products are doing to them in the air," Sather said.
NAMI is a component of the Navy Medicine Operational Training Center (NMOTC), the recognized global leader in operational medical and aviation survival training, which reports to Navy Medicine Education and Training Command (NMETC). NMETC manages Navy Medicine's formal enlisted and officer education and training programs, medical operational training for medical and medical support personnel deploying worldwide, and training that prepares aviators and flight crews to survive in land and water mishaps.
NAMI, NMOTC and NMETC are all part of the Navy Medicine team, a global health care network of Navy medical professionals around the world who provide high-quality health care to eligible beneficiaries. Navy Medicine personnel deploy with Sailors and Marines worldwide, providing critical mission support aboard ships, in the air, under the sea and on the battlefield.
For more news from Navy Medicine Education and Training Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/nmsc/.