It felt like someone had taken hold of my heart and was trying to wring it like a wet rag
I hadn’t felt this discomfort since years earlier as a young teenager when I suffered heart problems from an eating disorder and nearly died. I’d somehow trudge through the workday by applying pressure on my rib-cage when no one was looking, and paste a smile on my face when they were. At night, I would breathe deeply and pray while a tennis ball dug into the left of my back. I had been hospitalized for heart trouble many years before, and I was terrified. One day after work, instead of going home, I drove myself to the ER. I was only 25 and when they ruled out a heart attack, they offered me anti-anxiety medication. I refused and left angry, hopeless and still in great discomfort.
I let go of the relationship and the pain let go of me.
Maybe my heart is my weak spot. The place the pain finds first when under stress, or experiencing loss or grief. Maybe it’s yours, too. Or maybe, for you, it’s your thyroid or migraines or your left knee. Love is medicine as sure as the lack of love can cause illness.
Relationships and Health Are Connected
Relationships influence not only mental health but physical health as well. Researchers have been discovering the biological and behavioral components that explain numerous health benefits of connecting with others for some time, and time and time again, studies show negative relationships can have a lasting impact just as loving relationships can have a positive impact on your health.
Close Relationships Help Alleviate Harmful Levels of Stress
Scientists know the quality of our close relationships matter a great deal and the greater levels of stress hormones our bodies produce, the greater the chance for poor health. It is clearly indicated in countless studies that strenuous relationships cause levels of stress to heighten- in turn making the body more susceptible to inflammation, and affecting immunity. Inflammation is one of numerous mechanisms our body uses to heal damaged cells and tissue, so, inflammation indicates dis-ease.
What does that mean and what type of health implications can it cause if our close relationships are filled with conflict versus love and support?
Relationship conflict and lower social support can effectively modulate proinflammatory cytokine secretion both directly (via CNS/neural/endocrine/immune biobehavioral pathways), and indirectly, by promoting depression, emotional stress responses, and detrimental health behaviors. (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2002;
- Researchers have found when our relationships with family and friends is negative, there is reduced immunity, making those relationships toxic by adversely affecting coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system as a whole.(Glaser R, Kiecolt-Glaser JK.[PubMed])
- Nurturing the loving and healthy relationships can make an impact on your health by keeping the mind and body healthy, as well as offering support and motivation to live a healthier lifestyle to prolong life, such as: improving diet, or implementing an exercise program.
Negative emotions also contribute to prolonged infection and delayed wound healing, processes that fuel sustained proinflammatory cytokine production according to a paper published by (Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005) on stress-induced immune dysfunction.“Accordingly, we argue that distress-related immune dysregulation may be one core mechanism behind a large and diverse set of health risks associated with negative emotions. Resources such as close personal relationships that diminish negative emotions enhance health in part through their positive impact on immune and endocrine regulation.”
Inflammation May Have Detrimental Health Implications
Inflammatory responses aid in the damage of viral and bacterial pathogens, laying the foundation of the pathophysiology of many chronic diseases, especially in a non-productive form which increases the chance of depression, isolation, and damaging physiological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Inflammation is a robust and reliable predictor of all-cause mortality in older adults. C-reactive protein (CRP) and pro-inflammatory cytokines and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) are prognostic for cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and periodontal disease (Ershler and Keller, 2000; Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2002). Chronic inflammation within the body has been suggested as a key biological marker that may decline the physical function of those affected leading to frailty, disability, and, early death. (Ershler and Keller, 2000).
Findings between personal relationships and immune function is one of the most robust findings in the psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) literature (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2002; Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton, 2001). In the past decade, PNI researchers have focused considerable attention on inflammation, one aspect of immune function, because of the growing evidence that inflammation is central to many diseases and evidence linking inflammation and health. Scientists highlight the pathways where personal relationships impact inflammatory responses.
Inflammation, Altered Immune System, and Close Relationships Can Cause Depression
Major Depressive Disorder is a complex disease, and stress contributes to a greater risk for infection, prolonged infectious episodes, and delayed wound healing; all processes that can fuel sustained pro-inflammatory cytokine production (Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005). Numerous studies have been conducted over many years to locate the origins of Major Depression and many have connected it to inflammation which can be caused by relationship conflict.
Studies have shown an altered peripheral immune system, with impaired cellular immunity and increased levels cytokines which influence neurotransmitter metabolism, neuroendocrine function and regional brain activity, all of which are relevant to depression; acute administration of cytokines cause sickness behavior which shares features with depression and patients undergoing cytokine treatment develop depressive symptoms.
Supportive and loving relationships trigger the Release of Stress-reducing Hormones
The link between personal relationships and immune system function is one of the most fascinating findings in thepsychoneuroimmunology(PNI). This reinforcing evidence supports a link in supportive relationships with lower rates of morbidity and mortality. (Seeman, 1996)
In one longitudinal study, social influences predicted acute myocardial infarction (MI), even after adjusting for demographic and health variables. In this study, those who had lower social involvement were 1.5 times more likely to have a first MI. (Schmaltz HN, Southern D, Ghali WA, et al. Living alone, patient sex and mortality after acute myocardial infarction. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 2007;22:572–578. [PubMed]}
- Supportive social relationships whether through marriage, friends, or family can reduce stress and inflammation and improve overall health.
- Non-healthy relationships result in higher levels of depression and loneliness which have a potent effect on the immune system.
Research Has Explored the Link Between Depression and Inflammation
Given the association between depression and inflammation, recent research has explored underlying mechanisms extensively. Findings that pharmacologically-induced inflammation can produce symptoms of depression indicate that the relationship between inflammation and depression is bidirectional. Administration of proinflammatory cytokines in rodents induces sickness behavior, a cluster of symptoms resembling human depression (Dantzer et al., 2008). In healthy volunteers, mood is worse and proinflammatory cytokine production is higher following administration of cytokines, endotoxin or vaccinations (Raison et al., 2006); imaging reveals that resultant low mood is associated with reduced connectivity of brain areas implicated in depression, a mechanism modulated by peripheral IL-6 (Harrison et al., 2009). Cytokines can alter serotoninergic systems by upregulation of indoleamine 2, 3-dioxygenase (IDO), which reduces tryptophan production, and ultimately brain serotonin levels. (Dantzer et al., 2008).
This link suggests to researchers that in depressed patients, neuroinflammation is likely to be a factor contributing to this sometimes debilitating disease and can supply the brain with physiological factors, like inflammation, that contribute to suicidal thoughts and behavior. These findings raise the question, and the importance of whether novel treatments that reduce microglial activation may be effective in depression. (Biological Psychiatry, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.08.005
Loving relationships are medicine to the body, while negative ones are toxic to the body
Although there are certainly some notable methodological challenges, the evidence suggests that learning more about how close relationships influence inflammation and immunity will provide important new insights into the ways that relationships impact health. Scientists know the quality and closeness of our personal relationships influence inflammation and inflammation influences poor health to the brain and contributes to many diseases.
Research indicates nurturing the relationships in our lives we are also nurturing our bodies and minds.
Signs and symptoms of healthy relationships
A relationship without conflict is not necessarily a healthier relationship. Research indicates that it is the way in which conflict is resolved that is more important to the health and longevity of the bond.
Here are some healthy ways to effectively deal with relationship conflict:
Focus on improving the relationship rather than complaining about what is wrong. Treat the relationship conflict as an opportunity to repair rather than an opportunity to blame.
Reflect, don’t react. When feelings momentarily wane or become ambivalent, realize it’s normal. Focus on your deep personal values and what this person and relationship means to you rather than temporary feelings in times of conflict
Choose empathy. Listen and validate your partner’s feelings rather than trying to “compete or compare” your feelings. Avoid the impulse to respond to their hurt feelings with your own hurt feelings. Let them feel heard. Ask for clarification and be reflective.
Cool off without being cold. Sometimes you need a shart cooling off period in time of conflict but be careful of making the other person feel rejected. If you need to take a break say something to the effect of, “ I’m going for a drive because I love us and I need to think, but I’ll be back in an hour” or “I need to leave for a little while to cool off, but I’m not leaving the relationship.”
Move toward each other instead of away from each other. Use warmth, understanding and humor from a shared space to connect rather than going cold or “stonewalling.” Treat the relationship as the most valuable possession you share together and, rather than taking sides, have the goal of improving what belongs to both of you.
Protect what you have. Avoid situations that make you feel good as an individual but put the relationship in jeopardy. When away from your partner, speak and act in ways they would feel comfortable if they were watching or listening. Consider a “Couple Bubble” Dr. Stan Tatkin, in his book Wired for Love: writes, “The couple bubble is an agreement to put the relationship before anything and everything else. It means putting your partner’s well-being, self-esteem, and distress relief first. And it means your partner does the same for you. You both agree to do it for each other.”
Photo by Azrul Aziz on Unsplash
Razi Berry is the founder and publisher of the journal Naturopathic Doctor News & Review, which has been in print since 2005, and the premier consumer-faced website of naturopathic medicine, NaturalPath. She is the host of The Natural Cancer Prevention Summit and The Heart Revolution-Heal, Empower and Follow Your Heart, and the popular 10 week Sugar Free Summer program. From a near death experience as a young girl that healed her failing heart, to later overcoming infertility and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia through naturopathic medicine, Razi has lived the mind/body healing paradigm. Her projects uniquely capture the tradition and philosophy of naturopathy: The healing power of nature, the vital life force in every living thing and the undeniable role that science and mind/body medicine have in creating health and overcoming dis-ease. Follow Razi on Facebook at Razi Berry , join her Love is Medicine group to explore the convergence of love and health, and find more Love is Medicine podcast episodes here.