Supporting friends and family relieves stress, decreases inflammation, study suggests

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positive-relationships-lower-inflammation(NaturalHealth365)  Want to lower inflammatory markers in your body associated with stress, chronic disease, and even early death?  In addition to things like diet and exercise, your social life actually plays a pivotal role!

A new study out of Ohio State University offers new insight into just how powerful healthy social relationships really are, with positive effects noticeable even at the immunological level.

Positive social relationships relate to lower levels of inflammation, but there’s one small catch

“Although positive social relationships are assumed to relate to lower levels of chronic systemic inflammation,” write Tiao Jiang and co-authors in the study’s introduction, “the empirical evidence on this association is mixed.”  Their research was an attempt to help clarify this evidence by relying on longitudinal data compiled from self-reported questionnaires.

Their study, published this month in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, compiled data from 1,054 healthy adults between the ages of 34 and 84, all of whom were involved in the U.S. National Survey of Midlife Development.  Study participants answered questions about:

  • Their level of “social integration,” e.g., how often they attended social events and whether they lived with a partner
  • How much they believed they could rely on friends, family, or a spouse if they needed help
  • Their sociodemographic information and relevant health information

Importantly (and what sets this study apart from similar research), participants were also asked to rate their “perceived support-giving,” which the authors defined as the belief that one can be available to give social support to others.

At a two-year follow-up, the participants returned to provide blood samples, which were used to test for the levels of a systemic inflammatory biomarker known as interleukin-6 (IL-6).  Higher levels of IL-6 have been associated with a wide range of chronic diseases, ranging from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s.

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After accounting for confounding factors like pre-existing medical conditions, education and income levels, age, and health behaviors, the researchers discovered that simply having good social support from others isn’t necessarily enough to lower inflammatory markers.  What DID show a statistically significant correlation, however, was the relationship between IL-6 levels and perceived support-giving.

As the authors put it: “positive social relationships are associated with lower IL-6 only for individuals who believe they can give more support in those relationships.”

Admittedly, as far as a “catch” goes, this seems like a pretty good one: your social life can boost your health, but only if you make yourself available to help other people.  Doing good for others has never been so good!

It is NEVER too late to make connections with others … here are five ways to improve social relationships

As Jiang and co-authors note in their paper, inadequate social relationships have been linked to a whopping 50% increased risk of death, which is on par with smoking or obesity in terms of detrimental health impacts.

But if you struggle to connect with others, you might feel like you don’t know where to start when it comes to improving your social relationships.  These five social-boosting strategies might help:

  1. Use other people’s names frequently.  It’s an easy way to show interest in others and start a connection.
  2. Practice your active listening skills.  Good listeners are generally more enjoyable to be around than people who don’t pay attention, interrupt, or are simply waiting for their turn to talk.
  3. Get moving with others.  The National Institutes of Health recommends getting physically active with other people as an effective way to build social bonds.  Try a group exercise class or even a lunchtime walk with co-workers.  Do good for others by offering to buy a round of post-workout coffees or snacks!
  4. Join in.  Find opportunities to be around other people, ideally doing activities you already enjoy (e.g., volunteering, adult educational programs).
  5. Be kind to yourself.  It’s okay to feel a little shy or nervous when you put yourself out there.  Do some relaxing activities before a social outing, try not to overthink things, and when in doubt, turn the conversation to the other person by asking them questions about themselves and their interests.

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