The 3 Most Widely Abused Substances in Military Life (and How to Regulate Your Intake)

(Department of Defense)

Deciding to join the U.S. military and making it a career requires a level of commitment that not many people have. Only 17% of U.S. service members continue to serve for 20 years and retire. Many choose to serve in order to gain work experience and skills, college options, find a better life or be part of something greater than themselves.

Fortunately, most Americans who serve find the journey an overall growth experience and come away with lifelong skills. However, many also create new habits, such as using caffeine and nicotine to stay awake and drinking too much alcohol to go to sleep. All three are methods of coping with stress -- and are not the best options available.

It may be time to consider a process to reduce or quit this triple combination of unhealthy habits that can lead to several chronic illnesses and elevated stress levels with deadly consequences.

Caffeine is perhaps the most benign of the three substances, but it is also the most readily available and, therefore, the easiest to abuse. There have been deadly side effects from caffeine use, many of which have been documented in the military. Pre-workout supplements with high doses of caffeine before rigorous physical activities like fitness tests have caused heart attacks in young, otherwise healthy service members.

For most, higher doses of caffeine will decrease the positive effects of staying alert and awake over time. A decrease in caffeine may be a logical answer if you do not see the positive results you once saw. More caffeine is not the answer. Most medical sources, such as the Mayo Clinic, recommend a daily limit of 400 milligrams, roughly four cups of coffee. Some energy drinks flirt with this maximum limit in a single serving, so stay away!

Honestly, caffeine can be healthy and sometimes helpful in average doses. Remember that the above-normal ranges make caffeine more dangerous, deadly and less effective for your needs. Be careful.

Alcohol and nicotine, on the other hand, come with the extra baggage of unhealthy and long-term chronic illnesses, all of which can be prevented by not building the habit of excessive alcohol use and tobacco use. It is critical to avoid using these substances, as they ruin lives with long-term abuse and offer no benefit to health and human physiological performance.

In other words, do not even get started using these readily available substances. Smoking and other tobacco use and binge drinking are higher than the national average in military members, and these habits can last a lifetime, usually ending in less-than-ideal circumstances of health and wellness. It is no way to die.

Stopping Is Tough, but It Takes Discipline

The good news is that military members have a level of discipline they can tap into if they choose to battle the urge to use regularly. Fortunately, the military branches have cessation and education programs for alcohol, caffeine and nicotine.

Stopping begins with assessing your use. Your health-care provider will ask questions about your drinking, caffeine consumption and smoking habits. They'll also do a physical exam and take your pulse and blood pressure. This assessment information will help them determine how to help you best.

Here is helpful information and contact information for programs to help you:

Military Nicotine/Smoking Tobacco Cessation Program Assistance|Army Program
Coast Guard Substance Abuse Program
Navy/USMC Alcohol/Drug Abuse and Rehabilitation Program
Air Force Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program (ADAPT)

Once your assessment is complete, your health-care provider will provide a personalized plan to help you quit your habits. This plan will likely include counseling and behavioral therapy. You may also be prescribed medications to help you stop.

You'll also need to start monitoring your consumption of alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. This will help you understand how much you're consuming and how quickly you're going through withdrawal. Your health-care provider will provide a tracking form to help you do this. If you are not assessing yourself, you are only guessing.

Why Do We Get Addicted?

We are creatures of habit and are wired to find these substances. One of the best descriptions of why we get addicted to certain substances (or activities like gambling, eating, work, etc.) is the breakdown of the neurotransmitter dopamine by Andrew Huberman on the Huberman Lab Podcast.

We can get a "dopamine hit" from the use -- or anticipation of use -- of these substances. However, we can also get dopamine from saying no to these substances as a reward for our newly tested disciplined action. I quit drinking all alcohol about five years ago and now have turned the tables on the dopamine hit to where I enjoy saying, "No, thanks. I will drink my water" (or iced tea if I need a boost to stay awake later than my usual bedtime).

It's important to remember that decreasing use or quitting these habits is a process. You will be tempted to use them often and likely experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, fatigue and irritability, at first if you are truly addicted. It's essential to stay focused and determined and disciplined to quit. Your health-care provider can help you manage these symptoms and provide additional support.

The military cessation program for alcohol, caffeine and nicotine also includes a check-in system. This system will help you stay on track with quitting your habits. Your health-care provider will check in with you regularly to ensure you're doing well and provide additional support. An accountability buddy is critical to success, even if it is a virtual weekly check-in.

Don't try to do it alone, especially with the available resources.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues