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How Your Relationship Can Make or Break Your Immune System

When it comes to healthy relationships, it all comes down to cortisol

Quarantine has brought some changes to my romantic life. The person who was once my live-in boyfriend is now more like a dutiful househusband. He cooks all the meals, does the majority of the cleaning and will even grab my iPhone charger from the other room when I request it. He’s like my butler, whom I also love and sleep with. It’s not just that I’m some demanding wench (I kind of am), but that he’s furloughed while I continue to work from home. I’d do the same for him if the situation was reversed (promise).

If I didn’t have him home with me, I think my health would suffer. I once ate a packet of tuna and a toaster strudel for dinner when he was out of town. I probably wouldn’t exercise much. I’d definitely take more naps after 5 p.m. And more than anything, I’d be depressed. 

Studies have linked long-term relationships with greater longevity, heart health, immune strength and even experiencing less pain, and while our immunity and overall well-being is determined by an interwoven web of our genetics, environment and habits, much of it is dictated on a cellular level by hormones. The same is true of our relationships

“The gold standard is whether a relationship reduces cortisol levels,” says Cathy Allsman, a psychologist and marriage therapist in Miami. “We know that cortisol levels have to do with stress, which increases inflammation. We know that inflammation is behind cancer and heart disease; there’s even accumulating evidence that it’s behind depression. If you’re reducing cortisol levels, it follows that you’ve probably boosted immunity. Relationships do that –– sure, some relationships can increase stress and anxiety, but they can also reduce it.” 

Healthy relationships reduce cortisol in a number of ways — touch, in particular, plays a huge role. “There are lots of mini-studies that show that holding your partner’s hand can reduce perceived pain in a medical procedure,” says Alllsman. “Being empathetic or looking into each other’s eyes can reduce cortisol, too. This is only one of the pieces of immunity, but it’s one of the big pieces.” 

It’s partly, too, why sex is also so good for immunity. As Shannon Chavez, psychologist and certified sex therapist, previously confirmed for me, “Sex is very good for the immune system.” Not only does it reduce cortisol, but it helps increase the more beneficial, feel-good hormones. “Orgasms release chemicals and hormones that boost immunity,” says Chavez. “Endorphins are also released, which act as the body’s natural painkillers.” Basically, she continues, “Sex is a stress reliever. It releases tension in the body and pent-up emotions, as well as relaxes muscles and increases blood-flow circulation, helping detox the body and keeping all systems in balance. Oxytocin is also released during sex, triggering feelings of safety and bonding.” 

In turn, the happiness we experience from sex can spread to other aspects of our life. “Sex boosts your mood and energy levels, which can lead to healthy habits such as exercise and physical activity,” says Chavez. This is important: Physical activity can reduce cortisol levels on its own, as can laughing or taking up a hobby. Healthy relationships can help partners experience these activities naturally, as a subconscious result of greater happiness, but they can also intentionally encourage them, as well. “If it’s a good relationship, you’re modeling good behavior for each other — you’re exercising because your partner is exercising; you’re eating good food because you want your partner to be healthy,” says Allsman.

However, on the flip side, “you tend to reinforce both healthy and unhealthy habits in each other,” Allsman explains. Even happy couples might enable each other’s poor diets, heavy drinking, cigarette smoking or any other health-hindering activities that produce further inflammation in the body. And because arguing produces cortisol, unhappy couples may be in even worse health as the result of their relationship.

Surprisingly, Allsman reports that couples generally seem happier during the quarantine. Because they’re focused on meeting their more basic needs, some couples have found that the other issues they may previously have argued about have become unimportant. Others are finding more time to improve their physical health alongside their partner. Olivia, 24, from Massachusetts, is staying with her boyfriend while they’re both furloughed from their jobs. “Our health habits have definitely changed,” she says. “We’ve been running every day, and doing workouts together. Every night we make a to-do list for what we each want to accomplish the next day, and we wake up early to do them. For example, one of mine was to call my car loan servicer, and one of his was to look into getting a business tax ID. We even have a shared document on our phone with all our projects.” As such, they both say they feel far less stressed than usual. 

While my boyfriend and I might not reach that level, we both help each other stay sane and healthy through all this. The fact that he runs or bikes for several miles every day convinces me to at least do a 10-minute workout video, and I like to think I help him cope through the quarantine without being blazed 24/7. More than that, though, we just know how to keep each other happy. After all, if either of us gets stressed out, our cortisol-reducer is right there next to us.