Married People Have Lower Levels of This Harmful Stress Hormone

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Need a good reason to get hitched? You may benefit from a low-stress lifestyle.

A scientific peak behind the curtains reveals that married men and women have significantly lower stress levels than their single peers, according to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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In a study of 572 healthy adults between the ages of 21 and 55, researchers found that levels of cortisol — a key stress hormone associated with an array of deleterious health effects — were far lower among married individuals than people who have never been married.

“It is exciting to discover a physiological pathway that may explain how relationships influence health and disease,” said lead author Brian Chin, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon.

The researchers measured the study participants’ cortisol levels over three days and took multiple samples during each 24-hour period. Typically, cortisol levels peak when a person wakes up; in married individuals, that wave of cortisol ebbed faster throughout the day than their non-married counterparts.

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The researchers believe their findings may have significant downstream health implications, because people whose cortisol levels decline quickly are associated with fewer cases of heart disease and longer survival rates when diagnosed with cancer.

“These data provide important insight into the way in which our intimate social relationships can get under the skin to influence our health,” said laboratory Director and co-author Sheldon Cohen, a professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

Avoid Chronic Fight-or-Flight

When you face a stressful situation, your cortisol levels, released from the adrenal glands near the kidneys, immediately spike. Rising levels of cortisol are a normal part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response to stress, and low levels of cortisol can result in an energy boost and improvement in memory.

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Yet long-lasting cortisol spikes — which can occur when facing chronic stress — are tied to a number of harmful health outcomes. High cortisol levels suppress immune functioning, increase weight gain and cardiac symptoms, boost blood sugar levels, and even impair learning and memory.

High cortisol levels from chronic stress can also result in anxiety, depression, problems sleeping and other significant health challenges.

The new study found that being married essentially reduces a person’s chances of facing these stress-derived health problems, and the waning level of cortisol among spouses has a lot to do with it.

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“Differences in cortisol levels were due at least in part to currently married individuals having a more rapid decline in cortisol through the afternoon hours compared to individuals who were never married (but not those who were previously married),” write the researchers in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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“Furthermore, there was an interaction between perceived stress and marital status in predicting cortisol levels. Specifically, higher stress was associated with higher cortisol levels for previously married individuals but not for the married or never married,” add the authors. “The results of this study support cortisol as one candidate mechanism accounting for the association of marital status and health.”

Whether you’re married, single, divorced or separated, lowering your stress levels can lead to rapid health benefits. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers seven ways to help you de-stress, including listening to music and belting out your favorite song.

Exercise, meditation and eating a healthy diet can can also suppress those harmful stress hormones.

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.