The Afghanistan Mission Strains Body Like a Marathon

Serving a 6-month mission in Afghanistan showed similar effects on Estonian soldiers’ health as running a marathon.

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip explores a gun on his visit to the Estonian mission in Afghanistan. Image: Raigo Pajula / Scanpix

Researchers at the University of Tartu deemed the 65 soldiers heading to Afghanistan to be fit as a fiddle.

The soldiers were tested with electrocardiograph and echocardiograph scans, a cardiopulmonary stress test, a number of chemical blood analyses and also had their blood pressure and artery elasticity measured.

“Clinically, they were healthy – none had any heart or coronary diseases,” said Erik Salum, a doctoral student at the Heart Clinic of the University of Tartu and its Department of Biochemistry. Part of his dissertation is based on these test results.

Salum stressed that all test subjects showed a similar level of physical fitness and were living under very similar conditions during their mission. The soldiers underwent the same tests when they returned after the 6-month service period.

The effects of war

“It didn’t damage the health of their hearts or coronary systems, but the levels of inflammation markers had risen,” said Salum.

The increase of inflammation markers signifies adaptive changes happening within the body as it responds to increased physical and mental stress. Inflammation marker levels are also increased in endurance athletes, such as marathon runners.

In an earlier study, the same research team found that inflammation markers went up in a similarly sharp way for people who took part in Erna Raid, an Estonian military competition known for its difficulty.

“This is a result of intense physical stress. The marker level goes back down in a couple of days,” noted the Head of the Heart Clinic, Professor Jaan Eha, adding: “Excluding traumas and roadside bombs, being in Afghanistan does not damage health.”

The members of the defence league in Afghanistan had to evaluate the percentage of physical activity that took place during their work hours. When physical activity was harder and lasted longer, inflammation marker levels were also higher.

The effects of the desert sun

Most Estonians suffer from a lack of vitamin D during the winter. Three-quarters of the soldiers first tested in April had less than the required amount of vitamin D in their blood and 14 percent had avitaminosis.

Upon return in November, all soldiers had significantly increased levels of vitamin D. The group average had risen 2.5 times and was twice as much as the minimum, required level.

“Most of it must have come from the desert sun, because it wouldn’t be possible to increase vitamin levels so sharply with food only,” said Salum. However, this does not mean that one could get too much vitamin D from the sun, because the extra vitamin is dissolved inside the skin.

Salum found it interesting that higher levels of vitamin D also correlated with healthier arteries. “This is connected with our plan to research, through animal studies, the possibility of using vitamin D to protect arteries and the heart in extreme conditions,” he noted.

This topic is also related to one of our earlier stories about the connection between vitamin D deficiency and several different kinds of cancer and multiple sclerosis.

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