The Biology of Marriage

A common misconception that South Asians have regarding emotional health is that it is entirely separate from physical health. Recurring research done on marital stress has shown this to be false, as marital stress is closely connected with cardiovascular disease! In addition, a recent study conducted by Brian Baker shows that people in unhealthy relationships and experiencing marital stress are twice has a significant effect on physical ailments, such as as likely to develop diabetes than people in healthy relationships, even after taking into account family history.

Some of the most fascinating research in the connection between physical health and marital stress comes from Ohio State University by Ronald Glaser, an immunologist, and his wife Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, member of the psychiatry. They are particularly interested in the connection between marital stress and immunity.

When we are stressed by anything, whether that be school or work, our immune system takes a dive and we are more susceptible to catching a cold or the flu. This is because when we experience a high level of stress, our body’s ability to produce white blood cells (a natural protector against viruses and cancer) and antibodies significantly drops.

Glaser and Keicolt-Glaser were curious to see how marital stress fit into this model of psychological stress and immunity. After a series of ingenious research designs, they found that people in marriages exhibiting a high level of hostility, contempt, and fighting take two full days longer to heal from wounds than couples who experienced and showed less animosity during their arguments. would take

These results have a profound impact on, not only, the emotional health of the couples involved in unhealthy relationships, but it plays a significant role in situations where physical health is in a critical state. A partner who has just had surgery or a heart attack but also has an unhealthy marriage will take much longer to heal from the operation or recover from the cardiac event than if he was in a warm, supportive marriage.

Much of these conclusions are supported by the evidence that stress releases a high level of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and adrenaline into the body. This sends the body into the “fight or flight” mode where your heart races, your digestion slows down, and your immunity is suppressed.

Chronic stress is a situation when the body increases its baseline and continuously produces a higher amount of cortisol, adrenaline, catecholamines and glucocorticoids (other stress hormones) to keep the body at a high alert state constantly. Effects of chronic stress include growing waistlines, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, low HDL (the good cholesterol) and high triglycerides. Because of this, people in unhealthy marriages are much more likely to get sick, take longer to recover from illness, develop depression, experience gastrointestinal problems, and develop rashes in addition to long-term effects on tissues and organs within the body.

Other researchers looked into the effect of proximal or distal contact with a partner and how that affected blood pressure. In marriages that were unhealthy, daily contact with a partner sharply increased diastolic blood pressure. However, in healthy, happy and warm relationships, daily contact with the partner lowered diastolic blood pressure. Interestingly, regardless of other stresses in their life, people in healthy relationships who argue fairly and without hostility. Healthy couples also experience arguments. So the conclusion is not to avoid arguments but to argue cleanly and fairly. develop a stronger resistance to infections and have protection against heart disease and cancer.

This undeniable connection between emotional and social stress due to unhealthy marriages and physical health cannot be denied. So many times patients, especially South Asians, will go to the doctor after developing the flu repeatedly not know why they won’t get better. Both doctor and patient are urged to considered emotional and social stresses in the patient’s life as the cause of physical ailments, lengthy recovery times and risks for more serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Once the  South Asians community start accepting that stress is as serious of a risk factor for illnesses and diseases as the more conventional risk factors, the will realize how much more control over their health they actually have .

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