PennState logoEver thought about staying fighting fit with just a few thoughtful words? Well, it appears that the impact of conflicts people experience in their marital lives could be lowered by just a few thoughtful words. Supposedly lower amounts of stress-related proteins are released by couples who bring thoughtful words to a fight. A latest study suggests that rational communication between partners could actually ease the impact of marital fight on the immune system.

Elevated levels of chemicals known as cytokines are apparently found in people who are in a stressful situation like a troubled relationship. Produced by cells in the immune system, these proteins aid the body mount an immune response in the course of infection. Abnormally high levels of these proteins however are supposedly associated to cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and even some cancers.

“Previous research has shown that couples who are hostile to each other show health impairments and are at greater risk of disease,” shared Jennifer Graham, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, Penn State. “We wanted to know if couples who use thoughtfulness and reasoning in the midst of a fight incur potential health benefits.”

“Typically, if you bring people to a lab and put them under stress, either by engaging them in a conflict or giving them a public speaking task, you can see an increase in proinflammatory cytokines such as Interleukin-6 (Il-6) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha),” eluciadted Graham.

The experts associated with the study looked at data garnered by Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, distinguished university professor, S. Robert Davis Chair of Medicine and professor of psychiatry and psychology, Ohio State University College of Medicine; and Ronald Glaser, director, Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, Kathryn & Gilbert Mitchell Chair in Medicine and professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics. They observed the levels of Il-6 and TNF-alpha in 42 married heterosexual couples both prior to and after marital discussion tasks.

“We specifically looked at words that are linked with cognitive processing in other research and which have been predictive of health in studies where people express emotion about stressful events,” commented Graham. “These are words like — think, because, reason, why — that suggest people are either making sense of the conflict or at least thinking about it in a deep way.”

Over two weeks as part of the study, the 42 couples made two separate overnight visits.

“We found that, controlling for depressed mood, individuals who showed more evidence of cognitive discussion during their fights showed smaller increases in both Il-6 and TNF-alpha cytokines over a 24-hour period,” said Graham.

It was observed that during their first visit, the couples engaged in a neutral, fairly supportive discussion with their spouse. However in the course of the second visit, the discussion was centered on the topic of greatest altercation between the couples. The levels of cytokines before and after the two visits were accounted for by the experts. They also utilized linguistic software to ascertain the percentage of certain types of words from a transcript of the conversation.

According to the results, individuals who applied more cognitive words during the fight had a smaller increase in Il-6 and TNF-alpha. Cognitive words used during the neutral discussion supposedly had no effect on the cytokines. On averaging the couples’ cognitive words amid the contention, experts translated a low average into a steeper increase in the husbands’ Il-6 over time. Surprisingly, neither couple’s nor spouse’s cognitive word use figured alterations in wives’ Il-6 or TNF-alpha levels for either wives or husbands.

Women, Graham speculates could be seemingly more adept at communication. Hence their cognitive word use could perhaps have a bigger impact on their husbands. Besides, wives it was observed were also more likely than husbands to use cognitive words.

The findings appear in the current issue of Health Psychology.