Toxic marriage, constant fights can cause leaky gut and depression

Married people who have nasty fights are more likely to suffer from leaky guts — a problem that unleashes bacteria into the blood and can drive up disease-causing inflammation, a study has found. It’s the first study to illuminate this particular pathway between bad marriages and poor health, said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, from The Ohio State University in the US.

“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,” said Kiecolt-Glaser, lead author of the study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology

Researchers at Ohio State recruited 43 healthy married couples, surveyed them about their relationships and then encouraged them to discuss and try to resolve a conflict likely to provoke strong disagreement. Touchy topics included money and in-laws. The researchers left the couples alone for these discussions, videotaped the 20-minute interactions and later watched how the couples fought.

They categorised their verbal and non-verbal fighting behaviours, with special interest in hostility — things such as dramatic eye rolls or criticism of one’s partner. “Hostility is a hallmark of bad marriages — the kind that lead to adverse physiological changes,” said Kiecolt-Glaser. Then the researchers compared blood drawn pre-fight to blood drawn post-fight.

Men and women who demonstrated more hostile behaviours during the observed discussions had higher levels of one biomarker for leaky gut — LPS-binding protein — than their mellower peers. Evidence of leaky gut was even greater in study participants who had particularly hostile interactions with their spouse and a history of depression or another mood disorder. Previous studies have drawn strong correlations between poor marriages and health woes.

“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. Previous research has shown that marital discord can slow wound healing and drive up risk for inflammation-related diseases, including depression, heart disease and diabetes.

By looking for the presence of a biomarker associated with bacteria in the bloodstream, the team was able to find evidence of leaky gut, a little-understood condition in which the lining of the intestines becomes more permeable, allowing for the release of partially digested food and bacteria into the bloodstream.

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First Published: Aug 16, 2018 11:30 IST