12 ways your relationship affects health

How your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse can influence everything from sleep to blood pressure.
Health.com // Health.com

Life is sweet, all right—so sweet that each of us will eat the sugar equivalent of 6,047 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in the next 12 months. Impossible, right? Sure, you like a piece of birthday cake now and again, and you’re not above raiding the kids’ Halloween stash or Christmas stockings or even stealing a serving of ice cream once a week or so. But 140 pounds of the sweet stuff? How can that be?

The authors of the best-selling weight-loss books, Eat This, Not That!, reveal 12 of the most sugar-packed foods in America. Some are ice cream treats, sure. But just as many are regular food products that you’d never in a million years consider “desserts”—that is, until now. Steer clear of these 12 sugar-packed foods. Your blood sugar—and teeth!—depend on it.

Eat This, Not That!

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Weight gain

It's a common belief that couples "let themselves go" after pairing off, and there may be something to it. According to a 2012 review, people tend to gain weight as they settle into marriage and lose weight when a marriage ends.

But Troiani has seen the opposite happen quite often, as well: "A happy couple can motivate each other to stay healthy—they'll go to the gym together, set goals, and feel responsible for each other." When couples do pack on the pounds, she adds, it may be a symptom of conflict, not slacking off. "Dissatisfaction in the relationship can lead to passive-aggressive eating behaviors and sleep problems, which will lead to weight gain," she says.

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Stress levels

Surprise, surprise: Regular physical intimacy appears to reduce stress and boost well-being. One study, published in 2009 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, found that people who frequently had sex were healthier mentally and more likely to report greater satisfaction with their relationship and life overall.

Sex is just one aspect of a relationship, however. And your partner's behavior outside the bedroom can just as easily send stress levels soaring in the opposite direction. Parenting disputes, disagreements over money, or even questions as simple as who does which household chores have been shown to increase stress.

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Feel-good hormones

Sex isn't the only type of physical contact that can lower stress and improve health. In a 2004 study of 38 couples, University of North Carolina researchers found that both men and women had higher blood levels of oxytocin—a hormone believed to ease stress and improve mood—after hugging. The women also had lower blood pressure post-hug, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

"These types of caring behaviors are so important: a touch on the arm, holding hands, a rub on the shoulder," Troiani says. "It only takes a few seconds of contact to stimulate those hormones and to help overcome stress and anxiety."

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Sleep problems

Sleeping next to someone you love and trust can help you fully relax and embrace sleep, Troiani says. A big exception to that rule, of course, is if your bedmate keeps you up at night—by snoring, for instance, or by tossing and turning. In a 2005 poll, people were more likely to experience daytime fatigue and fitful sleep themselves if their partner was struggling with insomnia.

Relationships can affect sleep in less direct ways, too. Research shows that relationship insecurity or conflict is associated with poorer sleep—and to make matters worse, sleep problems can exacerbate relationship problems, creating a vicious cycle.

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Anxiety

Relationship difficulties can put anyone on edge, but in some cases they may actually contribute to full-blown anxiety. Several studies have found a link between marital problems and an increased risk of diagnoses such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety.

These links can be difficult to untangle, however, since anxiety has been shown to breed relationship problems (and not just vice versa). What's more, some research suggests marriage may help protect against anxiety. In a 2010 World Health Organization study of 35,000 people in 15 countries, those who were married—happily or otherwise (the study didn't specify)—were less likely to develop anxiety and other mental disorders.

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Depression

Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand, so it makes sense that relationships can affect depression in similarly complex ways. On the one hand, some studies have found that long-term relationships—and marriage, specifically—can ease symptoms in people with a history of depression.

On the other hand, fraught relationships have been shown to dramatically increase the risk of clinical depression. In one small but highly cited study, women—regardless of their personal and family history of depression—were six times more likely to be clinically depressed if their husbands had been unfaithful or if their marriages were breaking apart.

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Alcohol use

Our romantic partners have a noticeable impact on how much alcohol we consume, and how often. One study, which followed more than 600 couples during their first four years of marriage, found that people's drinking habits tended to mirror those of their spouse; if their partner drank heavily, they too were more likely to do so.

It's also true that relationship conflict and a lack of intimacy can drive people to drink. Research suggests that both men and women drink more in response to relationship problems—and excessive drinking, in turn, can add fuel to those problems.

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Blood pressure

A person's diet, exercise habits, and stress levels can all have an impact on blood pressure, so it's not surprising that your relationship status—and the strength of your relationship—can, too.

In a highly publicized 2008 study, researchers at Brigham Young University found that people in happy marriages tended to have lower blood pressure than their single counterparts. People who were unhappily married, however, tended to have higher blood pressure than singles.

"Being in an unhealthy relationship causes your body to release stress hormones and your heart to beat faster," says Troiani, adding that those factors can push blood pressure up over time.

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Heart health

The link between relationships and cardiovascular health goes well beyond blood pressure. Studies have consistently reported that being married is associated with a lower risk of heart attack and better outcomes after heart surgery, especially for men.

What explains this pattern? Stress and other underlying biological factors (including blood pressure) are thought to be involved, but the emotional and tangible support that partners provide likely plays a role as well. "It's the caring behaviors—affectionate touches, thoughtful actions—that really make a difference in a person's recovery," Troiani says.

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