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Couples who argue while sleep-deprived risk seriously damaging their health

A sleeping couple embrace on the fifth day of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Italy.
Reuters/Eloy Alonso
Rest well, play nice.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

All couples have disagreements, and most of us know it’s easier to fall into fractious bickering when we’re tired. But there’s a genuine health benefit to avoiding touchy subjects when both people in a partnership are sleep-deprived, according to new research.

Researchers from the the Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research tested couples for stress-related inflammatory responses, which have been linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis. They found that having less sleep didn’t automatically mean that people woke up and came into the lab with increased inflammation markers. The responses were triggered if they engaged in a stressful conversation with their partner.

Two things could stop the process from triggering, however. If one partner had had “enough” sleep, which the researchers defined as more than seven hours, neither suffered a significantly increased inflammatory response. And if the partners held their discussion in a more sensitive way—being emotionally open and not holding back—they also avoided the negative effects.

The study involved 43 couples who each came into the lab on two separate occasions. Each time they were asked to observe certain conditions, like abstaining from stimulants, prior to the visit, and were given special foods in an attempt to limit any other reasons for inflammation. The couple was then asked to discuss a topic—like money or their in-laws—that had previously been identified as stressful for them. The researchers took blood samples from each couple before and after.

study in 2015 concluded adults need seven hours of sleep to remain healthy. The new Ohio research modifies that, by exploring the idea that it’s only lack of sleep plus stressful situations that lead to the inflammation, which in turn leads to health problems.

It’s also the first study, the researchers said, to find that use of “emotion regulation” strategies—which include openly conveying the emotions individuals feel using both words and gestures, and trying to think about a problem from a fresh perspective—can break the link between lack of sleep, stressful discussions, and inflammation. Another way to put that is that couples who tried hard to communicate kindly with one another were better for each others’ health.

Of course, busy people and parents of  young children often can’t be model sleepers, and those in the study certainly weren’t. On average, the participants had only slept for 6.7 hours on each of the two previous nights, and the shortest sleep was just 3.5 hours. ”What’s concerning is both a lack of sleep and marital conflict are common in daily life,” said Stephanie Wilson, the lead researcher. To mitigate the ill effects, they suggest couples find ways to resolve conflict kindly—and that at least one gets some sleep.

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