It’s not your imagination: A fight with your spouse does make you feel hungry, say researchers from University of Delaware and Ohio State University, and it also inspires emotional eating. Evidence from a new study indicates that both spouses in an unhappy marriage, when compared to people in happier marriages, had worse quality diets and higher post-meal levels of the hormone ghrelin.

"When people have high levels of ghrelin, they are typically feel really hungry, and high ghrelin often occurs after people have fasted and are about to eat," Dr. Lisa Jaremka, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware, wrote Medical Daily in an email. Commonly, ghrelin is referred to as the "hunger hormone."

Married vs. Single

We’re told it’s healthier to be married than single. After all, studies have indicated married people have fewer chronic health conditions and lower premature mortality rates than their single friends. But marriage may not be a universal Band-aid when it comes to health, report the researchers of the current study. People in unhappy marriages report worse overall health than those in good marriages, plus they may be at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and premature mortality.

Could appetite and diet be one trail by which unhappiness in marriage negatively impacts the health of couples?

To answer this question, Jaremka worked with six colleagues at Ohio State’s College of Medicine to design an experiment. They began by recruiting 43 couples using an announcement for a “parent study about immune responses to fast-food-type-meals.” Couples were ineligible if they had been married for less than three years or had substance abuse issues. All the participants agreed to attend two sessions, each over nine hours long. During each session, they would be with their partner, eat a meal together, respond to questions, and allow blood tests and other data collection.

Importantly, during the sessions, the couples also agreed to try to resolve one or more conflicts in their relationship. Each couple’s 20-minute "problem discussions" would be videotaped, while the research team remained out of sight. Later, though, the researchers would watch and decode the tapes for signs of hostility, conflicted communication, and general discord.

And so the researchers recorded each participant’s age, height, and weight, calculated body mass, and analyzed typical diets. Their hormone levels were tested at four intervals, once before the meal, and three times after it. What did the research team discover after analyzing the data?

“Among participants with a lower BMI, those who were in more distressed marriages had higher [post-meal] ghrelin than those who were in less distressed marriages,” wrote the researchers in the published study. These same participants also had a poorer quality diet than people in less distressed marriages.

Yet, there was one major catch. Poorer quality diet and surging ghrelin levels only affected unhappily married people of average weight or overweight. Marital stress did not raise hormone levels or relate to poor diet quality in people considered obese (BMI 30 or higher).

As a potential explanation of these asymmetrical results, Jaremka noted that people who are obese "already have a low quality diet. So, there may not be a ton of wiggle room for marital distress to have an effect — essentially they are already at the bottom of the diet quality ladder." She also noted that "the physiology of obese people is dysregulated in a variety of ways, and particularly in terms of the hormones I investigated." In all ways, then, their appetite-relevant hormones aren’t responding in a typical way, "so it is not surprising that marital distress also doesn’t have the 'typical' effect," she concluded.

Source: Jaremka LM, Belury MA, Andridge RR, et al. Novel Links Between Troubled Marriages and Appetite Regulation Marital Distress, Ghrelin, and Diet Quality. Clinical Psychological Science. 2015.