Though you may be aware that relationship disagreements can have some serious effects on your stress levels and even your mental health, you probably didn’t see this side effect coming. According to a new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, stress in your marriage can actually take a negative toll on your gut health. And as poor gut health has been linked to everything from poor digestion to memory problems to skin issues, you may want to keep the findings in mind.
The study may be small — and it will be fascinating to see if any follow-up research is done — but it seemed to show a really interesting correlation. Researchers gave couples a survey about their relationship and then had them tackle a disagreement for 20 minutes. After that, researchers drew their blood. What they found was really telling: couples who had displayed more conflict and animosity as they tried to sort out the disagreement were found to have higher levels of LPS-binding protein, which is an indicator of leaky gut syndrome. This syndrome leads to inflammation-causing bacteria being released into the body and can have a huge effect on your health — all because of relationship stress.
Even though we all know that marital disagreements can be stressful, realizing that they could actually lead to physical illness feels far more significant. “We think that this everyday marital distress — at least for some people — is causing changes in the gut that lead to inflammation and, potentially, illness,” Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, and one of the study authors said in a press release. One of the reasons that disagreements and stress in a marriage or in a relationship can have such a profound effect is that it totally reverses the role your relationship should play in your life.
"Marital stress is a particularly potent stress, because your partner is typically your primary support and in a troubled marriage your partner becomes your major source of stress," Kiecolt-Glaser said. So not only do you lose your major support network during times of a disagreement than your partner**,** the fact that your primary source of support is also the source of your stress is incredibly difficult for a lot of us to handle. Combine that with all of the negative ways stress can mess with your health and this can be a real problem.
If you feel like your relationship stress or disagreements are affecting your help, you should tackle the problem from two directions — the cause and the effect.
Start With The Relationship Stress
To treat the cause of the problem, focus on your relationship, especially your communication style. A lot of ongoing tension comes from a lack of communication about (and resolution of) existing problems. You know that horrible knot in your stomach when something is off between you and your partner, but you don’t know how to bring it up? It can feel totally torturous. So you need to tackle the problem head-on. Bring up the fact that there’s been tension, but do your best to keep it a low-conflict, low-stress conversation. Talk about how you feel, avoid accusations, and give them room to talk. Combining a candid look at what’s been bothering you with some time to reconnect — a nice date night, a bubble bath, or just some physical touching while cuddling up on the couch — can help the relationship start to repair.
And Look At Your Gut
As you’re healing your relationship, you need to heal your gut as well. There are a few really simple steps you can take that can help you restore your gut balance. Eating lots of plant-based food and fiber can help, as can avoiding heavily processed foods and other foods that can cause irritation. Another tip is to stick with healthy fats, especially extra-virgin olive oil, which is said to contain more microbe-friendly polyphenols than other cooking oils. Some people swear by fermented foods and yogurts, but be aware that the science is mixed — although they’re unlikely to do you any harm, so if you're wild about kimchi then dive right in.
There’s also your overall health to think about. You’ll want to be extra careful and aware of what you’re eating if you’ve been on antibiotics, as they can upset the bacteria levels in your gut. And of course, general self-care and stress-reducing activities — from yoga to a spin class to meditation or a long walk — are always helpful if you're hoping to feel more balanced and centered. Pay attention to your body and how different foods, activities, and exertion levels seem to affect your digestion. Try to take some time to rest and give your body what it needs.
See more: Can Stress Really Affect Fertility?
Relationship stress might be excruciating, but not many of us would have realized the huge knock-on effect it can have on our health — especially our gut health. And though you may want to tackle your gut issues, don't forget that relationship stress is the source of the issue. Improve your communication skills and things should get better from there.