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You’ve just had a knock down, drag out fight with your beloved and suddenly you start to hear the siren call of the cupcakes in your cupboard. Turns out, you’re not alone in that urge to drown your sorrow in a sugary treat.
Researchers have found heated arguments with a spouse can make levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin spike, according to a study published in Clinical Psychological Science.
“Ghrelin’s not just pushing you to eat,” says the study’s lead author, Lisa Jaremka, an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware. “It’s creating a craving for specific types of foods: those that are high in sugar, high in fat and high in salt.”
That doesn’t surprise Pat Singleton one bit.
“I had an argument with my wife the night before last,” says Singleton, a 29-year-old from West Palm Beach, Florida. “The first thing I wanted to do was to grab a tub of ice cream. Whenever we have a heated argument, I start craving fried chicken or something sweet.”
Jaremka wanted to find an explanation for why people in troubled relationships have shorter lifespans and are more prone health problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. She suspected marital distress might be leading to poor food choices, which would put people at risk for a host of illnesses.
So Jaremka and her colleagues rounded up 43 couples who had been married for at least three years and whose average age was 38. Before the study volunteers came into the lab, they were asked to detail what they had eaten over each of the previous three days.
In the lab, researchers drew blood that would later be tested for ghrelin levels and then asked the couples to list topics that they had disagreements about. Later on, one of the researchers asked each couple to try resolving at least one of the topics.
While the discussions were going on, the researchers observed and recorded telling details that characterized each couple’s style of arguing. They noted, for example, “If one spouse was calling the other names or was saying things like, ‘Oh, that’s stupid,’” Jaremka says.
“Some people will say things like ‘I don’t know why we ever got married,’ or ‘We’re only still married because of the kids,’” Jaremka adds. “Those sorts of things can be really hard to hear.”
The researchers also noted some of the more subtle put downs, and non-verbal communications, like eye rolls.
Afterwards, they once again tested ghrelin levels. As it turned out, study volunteers with distressed marriages had higher ghrelin levels and worse diets than those with healthier marriages — but that was true only among volunteers who were normal weight or overweight. Marital distress had no impact on ghrelin levels or dietary quality among obese couples. Jaremka suspects that’s because the obese volunteers are already eating poorly.
Scientists have long observed that good marriages can confer health benefits, says Dr. Erin Michos, an associate professor of medicine and associate director of preventive cardiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. And there have been a number of studies suggesting distressed marriages can raise the risk for cardiovascular disease by raising people’s blood pressure and heart rate, she says.
“But it makes sense that poor eating habits might also play a role,” Michos says. “We know that obesity and metabolic syndrome are risk factors.”
Jaqueline Hudak, clinical director of the Center for Couples and Adult Families at the University of Pennsylvania, commended the researchers for teasing out the physical impact of distressed marriages.
“I think it’s wonderful that we are getting more data points showing that there are physical changes that can happen in people as a result of fighting with their partners or family members”, says Hudak, an expert unaffiliated with the new research. “I think there is a lot of destructive, nasty fighting that’s going on out there. Fighting needs to be productive.”
Even when arguments aren’t particularly nasty, they can be unsettling, Hudak says. “If you feel like there’s a rupture between you and your partner, and that they’re not hearing you, then Häagen-DazsRocky Road can make a lot of sense,” she adds with a smile.
That rings true to Michelle Morton, who says arguments with her husband about their sons often leave her feeling sad.
“You kind of feel like your family is riding a roller coaster and it sort of feels out of control,” says Morton, a 45-year-old mother of three from Raleigh, North Carolina. “We’re both very stubborn and very opinionated strong people. The person who loses feels defeated, and like they’re not being heard. It creates tension and underlying stress.”
Morton says she tends to tamp that sadness down with a pizza or some ice cream — and sometimes a bit of both.
Ultimately, the message should be that people who fight a lot with their spouses need to find another way to calm their nerves, Michos says.
“Many patients respond to stress by adopting adverse coping strategies, like smoking or drinking or overeating,” she adds. “That bag of chips might make you feel better in the short term, but over the long term it would be better to turn to something like exercise or meditation.”