The recently launched study is for married couples and conducted by the husband and wife team of Ron Glaser, director of The Ohio State University College of Medicine’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research; and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor at the same institute. Both have spent more than three decades studying stress and its physical effects.
“In the marital studies we conduct, we’re also interested in how close personal relationships can either be protective or make things more difficult,” says Kiecolt-Glaser, who is also principal investigator of the study.
The research is designed to help gain an understanding of the physiological differences in the body’s responses to a fast-food type meal compared to a healthier meal, and how the discussion of a stressful topic can impact health.
As part of the study, married couples are asked to attend two day-long research sessions together at Ohio State’s Clinical Research Center. During each visit, blood samples are taken and the couples eat meals that appear identical. At one visit, the food is high in saturated fat. However, the other meal is low in saturated fat. The couples are asked to discuss a stressful subject in their marriage, such as finances, in-laws, annoying habits, etc. More blood is taken afterward to determine if the stressful discussions influence how the body processes the fat in the food by looking for changes in triglycerides.
“What you’re eating may actually interact with your behavior, to make things worse in terms of your physiological response,” says Kiecolt-Glaser. “In previous studies, when discussions got a little more heated we saw bigger changes in stress hormones and larger changes in immune response. In this study, we theorize that after the high saturated fat meal, a negative discussion might increase physiological responses more steeply.”
Kiecolt-Glaser, Glaser and their team are looking for changes in pro-inflammatory cytokines in the couples’ blood samples. These proteins are part of the immune response and start the healing process after an infection, injury or other tissue damage that leads to inflammation. Previous research by Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser has shown when stress causes cytokines, particularly interleukin-6 (IL-6), to remain elevated in the blood stream too long, they contribute to long-term inflammation which is linked to a number of age-related diseases including diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer. Glaser says stress isn’t the only factor that can keep levels of cytokines elevated; fat can too.
“Fat cells around the abdomen, called adipocytes, also make cytokines. So the more fat you have around your waist, the higher levels of these cytokines you have, and the more health risks you have,” says Glaser who is also a professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics. “It’s really about the processes of how stress affects the body. When we start learning about the processes, then we can try to find ways to modify them.”
The study is expected to wrap up in 2014 and is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Contact: Marti Leitch, Medical Center Public Affairs and Media Relations, 614-293-3737 or Marti.Leitch@osumc.edu