COLUMBUS — A new study led by researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found arguments with your spouse have the potential to harm your health, starting in your gut.

It’s called leaky gut, a little-understood condition that weakens the lining of the intestines.

Researchers says couples who had particularly hostile disagreements, there were higher levels of bacteria in the blood. That bacteria made its way into the bloodstream from the intestine.

“This study takes a look at chronic, everyday, real-life stress and leaky gut,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, one of the lead researchers on the study. “We know that inflammation leads to leaky gut and causes a number of age-related diseases. Our research shows that marital stress is furthering that inflammation.”

Leaky gut has been associated with anxiety and depression, as well as metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes. Chronic stress can exacerbate these conditions, and researchers know that gut permeability plays a key role in understanding how everything works together. 

“Ultimately, anything in our gut that’s going to influence our health is going to be in the blood first, then make its way to the individual organs,” said Michael Bailey PhD, co-author on the study. “We’re really interested in what’s going to wind up in the blood and how it impacts our health.”

Researchers at Ohio State recruited 43 healthy married couples. As part of the study, they encouraged the couples to discuss and try to resolve a conflict likely to provoke strong disagreement. Some of the topics included money and in-laws.

Researchers took a blood sample and then left the couples alone for these discussions, which were videotaped. Researchers looked for signs of conflict and hostility, things such as dramatic eye rolls or criticism of one’s partner.

After 20 minutes, researchers took another blood draw.

The research team then found the men and women who demonstrated more hostile behaviors during the observed discussions had higher levels of one biomarker for leaky gut than couples who remained calm. The study found evidence of leaky gut was even greater in study participants who had particularly hostile conversations.

“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,” Bailey said, adding that the same condition can also potentially contribute to poor mental health.