Who you spend time with and the quality of your relationships not only says a lot about who you are as a person, but it has a tremendous impact on your health. A now classic study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that—even after controlling for risk factors like smoking, poverty low socio-economic status, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise and obesity—lack of social relationships, personality dispositions, and acute stress, including the stress of racism were better predictors for increased risk of death and disease. [i]
Other studies have shown that you are more likely to be overweight (and suffer from all of the resulting health consequences) if your friends are overweight than if your parents are overweight. And we are now learning that when you join together in community to lose weight and heal you are far more likely to succeed. The Look Ahead Study, a 13-year study of 5,000 people funded by the National Institutes of Health, compared an intensive group lifestyle change program for diabetes prevention to regular medical care with individual visits to the diabetic educator, nutritionist, and doctor. To date, the group lifestyle program has proven remarkably more effective in lowering weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure than conventional medical care. [ii] Once this study is completed, it will completely change our way of thinking about how to treat disease.
We get better together. The community is the cure.
So what happens when our relationships suffer?
For many people, relationships are a major source of stress. As much as you love and need them, your parents, partner, children, boss, and even your friends can be the cause of a lot of aggravation. The resultant stress can have a tremendous impact on your health.
As my friend and colleague Christaine Northrup, MD points out in the newly revised edition of her book The Wisdom of Menopause , midlife can be an especially difficult time to navigate tough relationship issues. She says:
“It is no secret that relationship crises are a common side effect of menopause. Usually this is attributed to the crazy-making effects of the hormonal shifts occurring in a woman’s body at this time of transition. What is rarely acknowledged or understood is that as these hormone-driven changes affect the brain, they give a woman a sharper eye for inequity and injustice, and a voice that insists on speaking up about them. In other words, they uncover hidden wisdom—and the courage to voice it. As the vision-obscuring veil created by the hormones of reproduction begins to lift, a woman’s youthful fire and spirit are often rekindled, together with long-sublimated desires and creative drives. Midlife fuels those drives with a volcanic energy that demands an outlet.
“If it does not find an outlet—if the woman remains silent for the sake of keeping the peace at home or work, or if she holds herself back from pursuing her creative urges and desires—the result is equivalent to plugging the vent on a pressure cooker: Something has to give. Very often what gives is the woman’s health, and the result will be one or more of the “big three” diseases of postmenopausal women: heart disease, depression, and breast cancer. On the other hand, for those of us who choose to honor the body’s wisdom and to express what lies within us, it’s a good idea to get ready for some boat rocking, which may put long-established relationships in upheaval. Marriage is not immune to this effect.”
And neither are your relationships with other family members.
Relationships change as we evolve. Sometimes changes you are trying to make cause the people around you to feel uncomfortable. This is especially true when you are working on profound dietary and lifestyle changes—changes that are often needed to heal your mind, body, and spirit. Your friends and family may wonder how your newly adopted lifestyle will affect them. They may ask: Are her dietary choices a subtle judgment on me? What if I don’t want to eat the same foods she does? (This one especially comes up in families.) What will we do together now that she has chosen to spend her time doing new activities? Sometimes even changing your hairstyle is enough to stir the pot!
See it for the Petri dish it is. Experiment and expect resistance!
Remind yourself that it’s okay not to be the good girl (or boy!) who sees to everyone’s needs except her own. This goes for any pattern you’re trying to break.
As you end or update some relationships, you may feel a little sad. That’s okay. Grieve and let go. By doing so, you’ll be protecting your health for years to come.
Laugh. Bringing humor into a situation almost always eases tension.
Distance yourself—even if it means skipping the traditional family get together—so you don’t become emotional or stressed by others’ behavior.
Midlife and the menopausal transition in particular is a blessing, because it brings to light the things that no longer serve you. That can be your diet, your exercise regimen (or lack thereof), your career, and, of course, some of your relationships.
I know it seems scary. Holding on to the relationships you have—even if they aren’t supportive—may feel like a better choice than giving them up for the promise of new friends, love interests, or colleagues. But, be courageous! Seeking out people who will truly support you on your journey to health is critical if you want to get and stay vibrantly healthy for life. What is waiting on the other side of the grief that can ensue with transition is a life filled with more health and happiness than you can imagine.
Have your relationships had an impact on your health? How have they impacted it and how have you managed these problems?
Have you had to make difficult relationship transitions? What was this like and how did changing help you heal?
How has menopause or midlife had an impact on your health and relationships and what steps are you taking to manage these changes?
Leave your thought by adding a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
[i] Paula M. Lantz; James S. House; James M. Lepkowski; David R. Williams; Richard P. Mero; Jieming Chen, Socioeconomic Factors, Health Behaviors, and Mortality: Results From a Nationally Representative Prospective Study of US Adult, JAMA, Jun 1998; 279: 1703 – 1708
[ii] Look AHEAD Research Group, Wing RR. Long-term effects of a lifestyle intervention on weight and cardiovascular risk factors in individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus: four-year results of the Look AHEAD trial. Arch Intern Med. 2010 Sep 27;170(17):1566-75.