You don't have to be a doctor or scientist to know that fighting with a loved one isn't just emotionally draining—it can leave you feeling shaky, exhausted, and sick to your stomach. These physical symptoms, however, may be just the tip of the iceberg.
A Dec. 2018 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that after a fight, married couples were more likely to exhibit biomarkers for leaky gut syndrome, a condition which can result in bloating, gas, cramps, and other unpleasant symptoms.
But what exactly is a "leaky gut," and why would a spousal spat cause it?
Best Life asked Arkady Broder, MD, chief of the gastroenterology and hepatology division at Saint Peters University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to weigh in on the study and explain what, exactly, leaky gut syndrome is. Read on to find out why taking a deep breath and walking away next time you're about to pick a fight with your better half might be good for your gut—not to mention your relationship.
READ THIS NEXT: 3 Ways Your Stomach Is Telling You That Your Heart's in Trouble.
Not everyone considers leaky gut syndrome a legitimate diagnosis.
"Leaky gut syndrome remains a hypothetical condition that's currently not widely recognized as a medical diagnosis," says Broder. "It's based on the concept of weakness in the gastrointestinal lining seen in some gastrointestinal diseases, such as Crohn's disease." He notes that ongoing trials are being conducted in order to better understand leaky gut syndrome.
"Everyone's guts are semi-permeable," the experts at the Cleveland Clinic write. "The mucous lining of our intestines is designed to absorb water and nutrients from our food into our bloodstream. But some people have increased intestinal permeability [meaning] their guts let more than water and nutrients through—they 'leak.'" This can result in toxic molecules getting into your bloodstream and causing inflammation, they explain.
If you experience symptoms you think may indicate a leaky gut, Broder encourages you to see a specialist. "The most important thing to start with is a full evaluation by a gastroenterologist to exclude a well-recognized medical illness," he says. "One should not ignore worrisome symptoms of weight loss, bleeding, and abdominal pain."
Our emotional and intestinal health are connected.
"When you consider the terms, 'butterflies in the stomach' or 'I have a gut feeling,' it is not hard to imagine the clear connection between our emotional and intestinal health," Broder says—something anyone who's ever felt nervous, upset, or excited can confirm.
"There is a growing body of evidence recognizing the critical role of the 'gut-brain axis,'" he explains. "The gut closely connects with the central nervous system through dynamic bidirectional communication along the 'gut-brain axis.' In fact, an entirely new area of gastrointestinal care titled psycho-gastroenterology has been developed to address the growing need for mental health professionals trained in gut health."
For more health news sent directly to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
A study showed a link between emotional upset and a leaky gut.
For the 2018 study, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, and a team of researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center asked 43 healthy married couples to discuss a hot topic likely to lead to a fight. A blood test afterward found that spouses who exhibited higher levels of hostility during the interaction (criticizing, eye-rolling, name-calling) had higher levels of LPS-binding protein—a biomarker for leaky gut—than those who kept the discussion civil.
"We know that inflammation leads to leaky gut and causes a number of age-related diseases," Glaser said in a press release. "Our research shows that marital stress is furthering that inflammation."
"This is an intriguing study on the theoretical relationship between stress and 'leaky gut,' Broder tells Best Life. "The strength of this trial is the demonstration of a clear connection between emotional distress and systemic signs of increased inflammation. However, the concept of a weakened intestinal barrier needs further study with larger trials and more objective measurements of intestinal lining weakness."
Mindfulness techniques can help keep your gut healthy.
Couples, married or not, are bound to have conflict from time to time—that's just a fact of life. But this study emphasizes the need to try and keep your disagreements civil, for the sake of your physical and mental health, if nothing else.
How else can you keep your gut healthy? Broder offers some ideas: "Gut health is not different from any other organ, and generally a balanced diet and regular exercise will ensure intestinal longevity," he says. "Mental health plays a critical role in our gut health as well, and mindfulness techniques such as yoga and cognitive behavioral therapeutic interventions are very beneficial."