Contact: Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD
For Release: Immediately
Surprisingly, marriage can have a powerful impact on the trillions of microbes that live in our intestines. This impact may threaten or protect our health, and even speed up or slow aging in older couples, suggests a new review of frontier research on marriage and the human gut.
Recent mounting evidence has pointed to the microbiome—the pattern of bacteria in our intestines—as a vital influence on health. At the same time, studies are showing that marital stress or happiness also can affect our health. The new review is unique in surveying the strong link between marriage, the gut and health. Published online ahead of print, it will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
A healthy gut teems with abundant, diverse, well-balanced and beneficial bacteria, says article senior author Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD. She is Director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University College of Medicine. Her coauthor is Stephanie Wilson, PhD, a Postdoctoral Fellow.
An imbalance of these microbes or too many harmful ones can spur a “leaky gut,” sending food particles, toxins or dangerous bacteria across the intestinal barrier directly into the bloodstream. “The immune system recognizes the bad bacteria and says ‘You’re not supposed to be here,’ “ which triggers potentially dangerous inflammation, says Kiecolt-Glaser. Inflammation raises the risk for heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
Marriage comes into the picture because partners actually have a similar microbiome. Physical contact—touching, kissing, sex, sharing a bed—leads to a transfer of microbes, she explains.
Couples in troubled marriages have less healthy, fattier diets, which can lead to a leakier gut. Marital discord also often disrupts sleep and may promote overuse of alcohol as well as smoking—all bad for the gut. Less happily married couples have leakier guts than the happily married, new studies show. There’s also evidence that depressed people have less diverse microbiota than the non-depressed, and “troubled marriages provide fertile soil for depression,” notes Kiecolt-Glaser. Of course, depression prompts a less happy marriage, so it’s a closed loop that’s not good for the intestine, or for health.
Since couples tend to share a lifestyle, reinforcing one another, even a happy marriage can be bad for the gut “if they agree donuts are a wonderful way to have breakfast,” says Kiecolt-Glaser.
As partners age, the effects are amplified, adds Wilson. Normal aging already brings a less effective immune system as well as a less diverse, more leaky gut. This can foster inflammation and frailty. Elderly, long-married couples also often shrink their social network, becoming closer than ever. A happy long-term marriage with wholesome lifestyle behaviors will promote a healthier gut, which helps to minimize harm from these inevitable slings and arrows of aging, says Wilson. But a troubled marriage that’s gone on a long time is apt to speed up aging, she points out, because the harmful gut effects of a nasty emotional climate are magnified in older bodies. So, if you had any doubt, science now confirms that marriage truly matters on the gut level.
Study Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000647
Faculty Page: http://pni.osumc.edu/
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”