A hostile marriage and a poor diet: two strikes against health

A collection of high-fat foods photographed by the National Cancer Institute.

You’ve always felt bad after fighting with your spouse, but perhaps you brushed it off as a commonplace, harmless part of life. In fact, evidence suggests that marital discord is not harmless at all.

“A bad marriage can actually have disastrous health consequences,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State University. That bad feeling signals “potent health-related malaise lurking in your body.” Add a poor diet to the mix, and you’ve got a prescription for chronic health disorders.

Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleague Martha Belury were speakers October 20 during the New Horizons in Science briefings at ScienceWriters2014, hosted by Ohio State University and attended by more than 400 science journalists and other writers.

How the body responds to a dysfunctional marriage

It is commonly recognized that chronic stress leads to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular complications. Under stressful conditions, blood levels of some hormones and cytokines (special cell-to-cell mediators of immunity) spike. With that as a clue, Kiecolt-Glaser designed tests to see whether conflict in a troubled marriage could have the same effect as other stresses. For example, could it affect the wound healing process? Or change the levels of the cytokines that can blunt the immune system?

Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues recruited healthy couples to talk about an issue of marital disagreement. After the conversation, the researchers tested blood levels of cytokines and the speed at which a wound healed. They inflicted the wound using an extensively used gentle suction method.

Wounds of highly hostile couples (including those who indulged in harsh criticism, showed poor listening skills or glanced angrily at their partners) healed much more slowly than those of couples who talked calmly.

High-hostility couples also secreted massive amounts of such notorious cytokines as interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. These inflammatory cytokines reached levels known to promote cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and some cancers, Kiecolt-Glaser said. Heightened cytokine levels can also promote depression. These data, she asserts, add to evidence that the rough spots of life with a spouse or other loved one can take a toll on mental and physical health.

If you can’t avoid stress, skip the fries

Stress can lead to comfort eating. Under pressure, many people reach for the instant gratification of junk food. And this may make things worse, said Belury, a professor of nutrition at Ohio State. Belury spoke in particular on the combined effects of marital stress (and depression) and high-fat food on the waistline and related metabolic disorders.

In newly published collaborative research announced at the meeting, Belury and Kiecolt-Glaser mixed high-fat meals into their study of marital discord. Two hours before discussing their issues, the married couples ate a high-fat meal (such as a 930-calorie Burger King Double Whopper with cheese or a McDonald’s Big Mac cheeseburger and medium French fries). Their energy expenditure was tested for seven hours afterward, along with the levels of chemicals in their blood.

The researchers found that these couples had:

  • less energy expenditure after eating. One session might mean 118 calories worth of exercise being avoided. This could potentially add 12 pounds of weight in a year.
  • higher triglycerides in the blood.
  • higher insulin levels, which also promote fat storage.

This means that the fighting couples, over time, would have an increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

The two scientists’ reports suggest that when people are trapped in a sustained, hostile environment—marriage being the most common close relationship over a long period of time—chances are they will suffer from more chronic health disorders. If increased calorie-laden fatty meals are mixed in, the health picture only gets worse.

Debamita Chatterjee is a recent Ph.D. graduate of the University of Rochester in biology with a focus on aging and metabolism. She has written for the University of Rochester Medical Center newsroom. She would love to educate and reach out to the public through communicating science.