Having healthy physical and emotional bonds with other people has many benefits for us all, from improved mental health to longer lifespans. And now there’s evidence that good relationships can also improve our gut health as well as our emotional wellbeing.
We humans are hard-wired to connect with each other. Relationships with others, from a fleeting interaction with a stranger in the supermarket to spending time with our most treasured friends and family, enrich and give meaning and purpose to our lives.
And the benefits aren’t just limited to our emotional wellbeing, as research has found that these social interactions are important for our physical health too. Studies show that close social relationships can be more beneficial to our health than interventions such as quitting smoking.
But did you know that the quality of our relationships impacts gut health? With so much focus on gut health and its influence on overall wellbeing, making sure your interpersonal connections are strong and healthy could be just what you need to improve your microbiome.
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How do our relationships impact gut health?
Research suggests that good personal relationships alter the microbiota in our gut, contributing to richness and diversity in the microbiome – two key components of good gut health.
“There is a growing body of research that indicates that our relationships impact our gut health, with closer, more intimate relationships having the greatest impact,” explains clinical psychologist Catherine Hallissey. “For example, spouses have more similar microbiota and more bacterial taxa in common than siblings. Not only that, but the microbiota of spouses or people living in marital-like circumstances are also of greater diversity and richness than those living alone.”
But the key factor in these findings is that the quality of these relationships matters. Living with someone who causes us stress won’t have the same benefit. So, how can we make sure our relationships are good for our gut?
How can poor relationships affect our gut health?
“Stress is known to have a significant impact on gut health,” says Hallissey. “Conflict in our relationships can be a major source of stress, leading to an increase in the release of cortisol and other stress hormones, which can disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut.”
Think back to your last breakup – chances are you didn’t feel much like eating healthily, and possibly even struggled with nausea, sleeplessness and lethargy. Given that a healthy diet, good quality sleep and exercise are three of the cornerstones of good gut health, it’s not hard to see how bad relationships could have a negative impact.
And there’s science to back this up, as studies show that people with strong social support networks are less likely to develop gastrointestinal disorders and have a more diverse gut microbiome.
“When we are in an unhappy or toxic relationship this can have a direct impact on our gut health,” agrees nutritional therapist Nicola Shubrook. “Psychological stress increases the release of cortisol, and we also tend to make poorer food choices when we’re stressed, seeking out sugar or alcohol to help bring comfort or escape, all of which are inflammatory to the gut.This inflammation can then reduce the number of good bacteria in the gut and cause symptoms such as bloating or constipation.”
Kissing improves your gut health
In great news for people in the can’t-keep-our-hands-off-each-other stage of a new relationship, intimate kissing is fantastic for our gut. Research shows that a 10 second kiss on the mouth can transfer as many as 80 million bacteria – while not all of these will be beneficial (remember glandular fever being referred to as ‘the kissing disease’?), given that diversity is so important to healthy gut function, it’s not hard to see that this can also be a good thing.
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Gut health also influences relationships
And it’s not just a one-way street – the health of our gut can also directly impact our relationships.
“It works both ways,” says Shubrook. “This is because the gut and its microbiome are involved in the production and regulation of important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, including serotonin (the happy hormone), dopamine (pleasure, satisfaction and motivation) and even oxytocin (sexual arousal, trust and romantic attachment).So, if our gut is unhappy, then we are unhappy, and this can lead to unhappy relationships too.”
So, spending time with your bestie or snogging your partner could be just the thing your gut health needs. It’s worth a try, at least.
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