Deployment Really Can Give You a Pain in the Gut. The VA Is Researching It


Researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs are planning a series of studies to learn about gastrointestinal (GI) and liver problems that many veterans face after deployments.

Dr. Arun Sharma, a health science officer in the VA's Office of Research and Development, says VA patients have a "very high incidence" of GI conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and infectious diarrhea. Liver diseases such as cirrhosis are also common.

A report, published in the journal Gastroenterology says diarrhea and related illnesses are among the most important diseases encountered while deployed, with veterans reporting a 76% incidence of diarrheal illnesses during deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. These illnesses often result in major job performance impairment. The report says that most cases were associated with food- or water-borne infections or related to deployment-related stress.

Veterans also report a two to three times greater chance of having inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) than civilians.

While it sounds logical that ground-pounders would face these issues because of stress, bad water, unsanitary conditions etc. during deployment, what many people don't understand is that these stomach and digestive issues can cause other health problems, and often last long after the deployment has ended.

"Emerging evidence indicates that deployment-related diseases such as PTSD, Gulf War illness, and traumatic brain injury can change the composition of gut microbes and further exacerbate GI and liver diseases," notes Sharma, summarizing one of the themes in the journal article.

The report notes that medical science is just beginning to understand there is a connection between bacteria in the gut and heart disease, kidney disease and other conditions. Studies have even shown elevated levels of certain microbes in the digestive systems of people with PTSD.

Liver conditions also are related to PTSD, as well as other diseases; however, with liver conditions, there may be other underlying factors such as obesity or alcoholism.

The VA is attempting to understand the total body connection and interrelation between stomach and liver problems and other chronic conditions that veterans face more often than the general public.

While the study is in the early stages and any results are a long way off, you should let your VA provider know if you have any digestive issues that you didn't think were important before.

In the meantime, eat your vegetables!

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