An Unexpected Side Effect of Arguing with Your Spouse

By Lillian So Chan

Marital conflicts such as disagreements about finances, kids and in-laws can lead to increased stress among couples. Unhappy relationships take a toll on mental and physical health. 

For example, marital stress worsened the prediction for recurrent coronary events three-fold. Among patients with congestive heart failure, marital quality was as strong a predictor of four-year survival as the severity of the patient's’ illness. Another study reported that the relationship between marital quality and health is similar in magnitude, statistically, to the health effects of diet and exercise. 

Scientists have now found that particularly hostile arguments among couples could harm their health, starting with their gut.

A team of researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that couples who had particularly hostile disagreements had higher levels of bacteria measured in their blood. These were bacteria that made their way into the bloodstream from the intestine.

Previous studies have shown that stress-induced changes in the gut microbiome can provoke bacterial translocation. This translocation of bacterial toxins in the gut to blood circulation (leaky gut) stimulates systemic inflammatory responses. 

Leaky gut has been associated with many health conditions including anxiety, depression, and metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes.

The new research shows that marital stress is fueling the inflammation by increasing the leakiness of the gut.

The study reports that participants with more hostile marital interactions had higher gut bacteria in their blood circulation than those who were less hostile. Additionally, the combination of more hostile marital interactions with a mood disorder was associated with even higher blood levels of these leaked bacteria.

This data illustrates how a distressed relationship and a mood disorder history can promote inflammation through increased gut permeability, thus increasing risk of inflammation-related disorders.

Reference

Kiecolt-Glaser J K, et al (2018) Marital distress, depression, and a leaky gut: Translocation of bacterial endotoxin as a pathway to inflammation, Psychoneuroendocrinology 98 (2018) 52–60, published online August 6, 2018 doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.08.007

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