Understanding How Relationships Impact Our Health and Wellbeing

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Last month, our Inflammation Series on the Cryo Recovery blog discussed the connection between diet and inflammation. In last month's post, we took a deeper look at the ways under which our nutritional choices impact overall health. After discussing the foods that enable inflammation production inside of the body, we discussed a variety of anti-inflammatory foods that can be easily added to nearly any diet, in order to encourage healthy inflammation levels. The goal of our Inflammation Series is to give you tangible ways to manage the amount of inflammation that exists inside of your body, because as previously discussed, inflammation is tied to nearly every disease, and managing its impact on the body is imperative to attaining a long and healthy life.

In our inaugural Inflammation Series post, we listed the six major categories that contribute to systemic inflammation. These categories include: environment, diet, relationships, structural problems, stress, and toxins. In today's blog post, we are delving into relationships; more specifically, how our interpersonal relationships impact our health and wellbeing. This topic is not one that is typically discussed amongst the mainstream wellness industry, but research has proven time and time again that a person's relationships, or the quality of those relationships, rather, are a huge contributing factor to their overall health outcomes.

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Humans are social in nature; meaning, we are hardwired to crave healthy social interactions. It's seemingly common knowledge that healthy relationships are beneficial to our health, whereas social isolation poses detrimental perils to our wellbeing. For thousands of years, social deprivation has been used by captors as a form of torture, and solitary confinement is often used as a form of punishment in correctional facilities. When our children get into trouble, we send them to time out--literally punishing them by way of isolation from others.

While we all need social interaction to live optimally, we also must protect the quality of our social interactions. It is often said that we are the average of the five people we spend most of our time with; therefore, if we are to have positive relationships that lead to beneficial health outcomes, then we must surround ourselves with the kind of people that believe the same. According to psychology professor Dr. Arthur Aron, "relationships are--not surprisingly, enormously important for health, and there are a lot of studies on the biological processes that account for the link between relationships and health".

Close relationships matter. Not only do they shape emotional reactions, mental health, and resiliency, they also impact the physiological processes that influence underlying disease. Across the lifespan, interpersonal relationships can be a contributing factor in inflammatory levels, thereby creating a risk factor for disease. In the next section, we further investigate how our interpersonal relationships impact our health outcomes.

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For years, researchers have been studying the link between interpersonal relationships and corresponding health outcomes. Through extensive research, we have been able to ascertain the four major components that link our social interactions to our health and wellbeing. These components are: mental health, health behaviors, physical health, andmortality risk.

  • Mental Health: As evidenced by a multitude of research studies, healthy relationships can be extremely effective in relieving harmful levels of stress, and increasing overall mental health through the release of stress-reducing hormones. Contrary to healthy relationships, unhealthy relationships have the propensity to increase stress levels, adversely affecting mental health. According to this study, depression is “reliably associated with relationship conflict and lower social support, providing one psychological mechanism through which close relationships influence inflammation”. In addition to the psychological impacts of unhealthy relationships, disorders of the brain have also been linked to low levels of social interaction. While not technically a mental illness, dementia is a decline in mental activity that leads to difficulty in memory, thinking, concentration and perception. Many studies have now found that those with higher levels of social interaction are less likely to develop dementia in their lifetimes. Moreover, The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that engaging in regular social activities actually improves cognitive functioning and increases brain volumes, per MRI imaging reports.

  • Health Behaviors: Healthy interpersonal relationships can influence inflammation by either the facilitation or prevention of health-promoting behaviors. As evidenced in this study, "some of these health behaviors—such as exercise, consuming nutritionally balanced diets, and adherence to medical regimens—tend to promote health and prevent illness, while other behaviors—such as smoking, excessive weight gain, drug abuse, and heavy alcohol consumption—tend to undermine health". Bottom line: if the individuals that you surround yourself with partake in certain health-promoting OR preventing behaviors, then you, too will most likely partake in said behaviors. Pro tip: try to encourage the confluence of social interactions with a healthy behavior. For example, go on a walk with a friend or family member that you've been wanting to catch up with. Walking is a great health-promoting behavior that yields benefits to both mental and physical wellbeing, and partaking in this healthy behavior with a companion is an ideal way to spend time together.

  • Physical Health: Across an individual’s lifespan, people who have supportive close relationships have lower levels of systemic inflammation. Think about it: relationships with tension, conflict, and constant stress will undoubtedly cause an inflammatory reaction inside of your body, as stress is a key influencer in inflammatory levels. Healthy and supportive social relationships have the ability to reduce inflammatory levels, while also providing benefits to immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functioning. In addition to these benefits, healthy relationships are also capable of reducing the wear and tear on the body's physiological systems. Furthermore, research has even linked emotionally supportive childhood environments to healthy development of immune, metabolic, and autonomic nervous systems, along with the HPA axis, meaning, maintaining healthy relationships throughout our entire lifespan is incredibly important for our health and wellbeing.

  • Mortality Risk: A myriad of research studies have determined that individuals who have supportive relationships have lower rates of morbidity and mortality, when compared to those who don’t. According to this article, social relationships in the form of friends, family, neighbors and colleagues "...improve our odds of survival by 50 percent". Furthermore, low social interaction was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as being obese. When examining impact of unhealthy interpersonal relationships and social isolation, mounting evidence now supports psychological, behavioral, and biological pathways as the key contributing factors that impact mortality risk, as these factors can lead to poorer health and decreased longevity.

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Pay Attention to How Your Relationships Impact Stress Levels

Many of us have relationships that cause us to feel stressed out or depleted. These relationships are not only damaging to our mental health, but they can also impact our physical wellbeing, as our bodies must constantly respond to the stress that these toxic relationships present. If you feel like your interactions with someone are regularly negative, stress-inducing, or draining, it is best to draw very clear boundaries with these individuals and limit your interactions with them, as exposure to additional stressors can be detrimental to your health.

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Communication is the foundation of all relationships. Whether it be marriage, friendships, work relationships, or familial relationships, a lack in communication often leads to conflict. Therefore, communication should always be a priority in ensuring that all parties are being heard, and that there is no pent up anger or resentment. Hate confrontation? Try practicing what you would like to tell your friend, family member, or colleague prior to having the actual conversation. Making a checklist of things that you would like to discuss also guarantees that you stay on the right track, and allows for productive communication.

Have Shared Interests

This may go without saying, but having interpersonal relationships with likeminded individuals is not only easier, but also, more enjoyable. Like to run? Join a running club. Enjoy reading? Join a Book Club. There are countless groups and clubs that suit interests anywhere from exercising to video gaming, and within those respective groups, a multitude of possibilities for meaningful friendships. An additional point worth mentioning is that sharing interests with your partner, friends, and family members is a tangible way to enhance your interactions with one another. Thinking about starting a new hobby? Invite your friends. Enjoying activities together can be a great form of stress-relief and relationship enrichment, and as we know well by now, healthy relationships and stress reduction present so many important benefits to our health and longevity.

Remember: Quality Over Quantity

When we think about friendships throughout the course of our lifetime, it's easy to get caught up in worrying about the "numbers". During adolescence, having an abundance of friends was indicative of popularity, but when it comes to studying interpersonal relationships and their impact on health, quality will outweigh quantity any day of the week. Quality friendships and interpersonal relationships foster trust, reliability, and respect, and having a small number of meaningful, healthy relationships is paramount to having dozens of superficial relationships. Prioritize the friendships in your life that leave you with a sense of wellbeing, as these relationships are generally symbiotic, and possess a great deal of deep and meaningful value.

Bill Hanks