What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome? Marital Spats May Be Bad for Your Gut Health

Husbands and wives who fight are more likely to suffer from leaky guts, according to a new study.

To investigate how an unhappy marriage can affect an individual's health, scientists at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center recruited 43 healthy couples between 24 to 61 years old who had been married for at least three years.

The researchers asked couples to discuss touchy topics likely to spark disagreement, such as money or in-laws, and taped the conversations. They used this footage to analyze verbal and nonverbal modes of conflict, including eye rolls.

The team also took blood samples from the couples before and after arguing, and found those who were most hostile toward their spouses had higher levels of LPS-binding protein, a biomarker for a leaky gut.

Leaky gut syndrome, or gut permeability, is characterized by bacteria and undigested food passing from the gastrointestinal tract into the rest of the body. This should not be confused with the hypothetical condition associated with alternative medicine dubbed leaky gut syndrome, which has not been medically recognized.

Dr. Donald Kirby, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic, told WebMD that symptoms include bloating, gas, cramps, sensitivity to foods as well as aching and pain. He said of the little-understood condition: "Leaky gut really means you've got a diagnosis that still needs to be made."

The leakage of substances into the bloodstream is likely caused by malfunctioning junctions in the gut that influence what passes through the lining of the small intestine.

A rocky marriage could harm gut health, according to a new study. Getty Images

In the Ohio State University study, scientists found the highest levels of LPS-binding protein in participants who had the nastiest fights and a history of mood disorders such as depression. The biomarker was also linked to inflammation in the body.

The Ohio State University study was small, but previous studies have linked a rocky marriage to slow healing and a spike the risk of conditions linked to inflammation, including heart disease, diabetes and depression.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, explained: "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.

"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."

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Dr. Michael Bailey, associate professor of biosciences at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, explained that stress, the sympathetic nervous system and changes to microbes in the gut appear to be linked.

"With leaky gut, the structures that are usually really good at keeping the gunk in our gut—the partially digested food, bacteria and other products—degrade and that barrier becomes less effective," he said.

In turn, bacteria triggering inflammation in the blood could lead to mental illness in what Bailey described as a troubling loop. And as the participants were relatively young and inflammations worsen with age, older couples could suffer worse, the researchers said.

But it's also relatively easy to mitigate the effects of marital stress by eating a diet packed with lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and consuming probiotics, said Kiecolt-Glaser.