How Your Romantic Relationships Can Lower Immunity
Relationships are incredibly important for your mental, physical and emotional health. In fact, they just might be the most important factor in determining your overall life satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean that all relationships are good for you. In fact, if your relationship makes you feel anxious or uneasy, it can lower immunity and make you more susceptible to a range of disorders and diseases. If you’re in this type of relationship, it will also increase your stress levels, and this may bring on stress related disorders such as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). So if you think your relationship may be damaging your health, here’s what you should know.
How Romantic Relationships Can Lower Immunity
In a new study, 85 mostly white couples who were married for an average of more than 12 years were asked to provide a number of saliva and blood samples. These samples were used to measure the participants’ cortisol and T-cell levels. The participants also had to complete questionnaires about their relationships, general health, anxiety levels and symptoms, and the quality of their sleeping patterns.
The study found that people who were stressed about their romantic relationships had higher levels of the stress related hormone cortisol. In fact, people with higher anxiety levels about their relationship had around 11 percent higher cortisol levels than people with lower anxiety levels. Cortisol is the hormone that your body produces when it’s under stress. This hormone increases your alertness and prepares you to react to the cause of the stress. However, this hormone can also do a lot of damage to the body. It can interfere with natural function and result in heart problems, mental health problems, sleep problems and decreased mental function. It’s also been linked to a shorter life expectancy, so although higher levels may be expected when someone is under stress, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a concern. But it’s the second result from this study that may be the real concern
The study also found lower levels of T cells. These are one of your body’s most effective defences against viruses, bacteria and parasites. There are several different types of T cells, and each of them has their own function in your immune system. There are even certain types of T cells that attack and destroy cancer cells before they can start growing and causing problems. So the fact that these cells may be affected by the increased anxiety and cortisol levels is a serious cause for concern. This study shows that anxiety may result in lower immunity, which could bring on all types of long term and very serious problems.
This study is only the beginning. There is no real evidence about cause and effect between high cortisol levels and low T cell levels. But it does suggest why people who are highly anxious about their romantic relationships may tend to get sick more often than people who feel more secure.
The Problem with Stress
Stress is a serious problem in modern society. In fact, it may be one of the biggest killers in the world at the moment because it’s linked to heart diseases, stroke and certain types of cancer as well as symptoms that cause a range of health concerns. Most people experience stress that’s caused by a variety of elements in their lives. This includes their relationships, work, environment, physical health, mental health, and poor lifestyle habits and choices. This type of stress is chronic and can continue over the long term. And unfortunately, this can cause a whole new set of problems.
Your body has a system known as the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response which helps the body cope with stress. This activates various systems in the body in response to stress and helps to protect you. However, it isn’t designed to cope with chronic stress, and when the NEM stress response is active for too long it can cause its functioning components to wear out. This is particularly obvious when it comes to the adrenal glands because they excrete cortisol, a key hormone in your body’s response to stress. When the adrenals become fatigued it can lead to lower immunity due to malfunctions in the autoimmune system, digestive problems because of stomach and gut imbalances and imbalances in every other circuit in the body. These imbalances can result in AFS, a baffling and little known disorder that can cause serious dysfunctions and even result in a full body shut down if it isn’t dealt with.
AFS is a serious disorder. This is why it’s so important that you deal with sources of stress as quickly as possible so you can avoid the problems that are related to it.
How the Inflammation Circuit Responds to Relationship Stress
The inflammation circuit is designed to protect your body from things that could hurt it. It consists of the immune system, the microbiome and the gut or intestinal tract. When you become ill or hurt, the body initiates a series of changes that result in the signs of inflammation: swelling, redness, pain and heat. This is a natural process that helps the body heal, but when stress becomes chronic it can result in ongoing, low-grade inflammation. Unfortunately, this is fairly common when the stressor is emotional or psychological. If you experience anxiety or stress because of your romantic relationship it will cause this type of ongoing stress. And this state is incredibly damaging because it can result in the inflammation circuit working overtime. This is an unbalanced state that can lower immunity and make you more susceptible to diseases, infections and disorders such as AFS.
Evidence shows that stress in romantic relationships can lower immunity. This may be due to the inflammation caused by that stress, or it could be a consequence of higher cortisol levels. If the latter is true, then the immune system could be doubly affected. And this could lower immunity to the point where it becomes a real threat to your health and long term well-being. The stress involved may also bring on AFS or cause it to accelerate to the later stages if it isn’t addressed and eliminated.
If you have AFS, the situation is even worse. Cortisol is the body’s stress reduction hormone and it acts to decrease inflammation before it can damage the body. However, when you have AFS your body is struggling to keep up with the demand for cortisol. Stress levels are so high that there isn’t enough cortisol to meet all of the body’s needs. This means that inflammation can rage unchecked, causing further damage and creating further imbalances in the inflammation circuit. When this occurs it will do more than lower immunity. It will also affect the gut and microbiome and cause additional problems and circuit imbalances.
Unbalancing the Detoxification Circuit
If you experience relationship stress on a regular basis, it will cause stress and lower immunity, which can result in imbalances in the detoxification circuit. This circuit is closely linked to the inflammation circuit as it involves the immune system, the liver and the Interstitium, or the spaces between the cells where chemical messages are exchanged. This circuit is designed to remove metabolites, the toxic results of metabolic activities, from the body before they can cause damage. This circuit usually doesn’t have any trouble removing metabolites from the body, but when there’s a build-up of metabolites it can start to become imbalanced. A lot of things can cause this build-up, but it mostly occurs because of stress. So if you’re stressed because of your relationship, your body will produce more metabolites and perhaps even start to overwhelm this circuit.
When metabolite levels increase the liver and interstitium and its constituents work overtime to eliminate them and this can cause the inflammation, which creates more metabolites. If this state is allowed to continue unchecked, it will weaken the immune system and further lower immunity. This may cause the detoxification circuit to become unbalanced, resulting in problems like chronic infections, microbiome imbalances, gastric disturbances such as constipation, bloating and diarrhea, food sensitivities and fatigue. It may also have the effect of increasing anxiety levels because the balance of the microbiome is closely tied to mental health.
If the detoxification circuit becomes unbalanced because of relationship stress, it can cause a vicious circle of problems. It will progressively increase anxiety, lower immunity, and cause physical symptoms which may worsen your original condition and bring on or exacerbate AFS. The only way out of this cycle is to find ways to eliminate the sources of stress and give your body the care and help that it needs to heal itself and restore the circuits to their normal balance again.
If you’re trying to safeguard your health, you need to look at every aspect of your life. Sometimes, the elements that are meant to support you, such as your relationships, can actually be causing more problems than you might think. Romantic relationships that make you feel anxious or uncertain can lower immunity and lead to other, more serious problems. So if you have AFS, it’s important that you face the truth about what’s happening and take steps to reduce or eliminate this stressor from your life.
© Copyright 2014 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Can a romantic relationship really lower immunity?
Romantic relationships can be a great source of comfort, but when sometimes they also make people feel stressed and anxious. When you’re uncertain about something, it affects your cortisol levels and can cause lower immunity. And this will affect your long term health.