Love hurts, but a breakup can be agony—even beyond the emotional pain. If you’ve gone through a highly emotional split, researchers say your immune system can take a significant hit.
“Breaking up with a partner leaves people feeling blue and lonely, even when it's something they wanted,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University. “Time heals wounds, and people recover, but the time course for recovery is related to how much a person continues to be preoccupied with thoughts of their former partner.”
In her research, Kiecolt-Glaser has found this preoccupation with a lost love can take the form of pining or rage, but in either case, those thoughts are linked with feelings of loneliness, depression and—believe it or not—poorer immune function.
Stress hormones are a likely culprit.
Your immune system’s cells contain receptors that react to many different hormones, including some related to stress, depression and other breakup-induced emotional responses, she explains. If the fallout from a breakup keeps your stress hormones elevated for weeks or even months, that can lead to inflammation—as well as shifts in your gut microbiome—that could in turn lower your body’s defenses against illness-causing pathogens. Those shifts may also exacerbate feelings of pain associated with existing conditions like arthritis.
“The key issue is psychological stress,” says David Sbarra, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. The greater your anguish after a split and the longer that feeling persists, the bigger the hit your immune system is likely to take, he says.
His research indicates that, after months or years of coupledom, you and your partner can become deeply, even biologically linked. Your brain and body become so accustomed to having your partner around that once that person is absent, your sleep, appetite and even temperature regulation can be thrown out of whack. Like a planet unmoored from its star, your post-breakup self can feel out-of-orbit and adrift in space.
On the other hand, for those who feel relieved or happy after ending a relationship, there’s unlikely to be a negative effect on immune function, Sbarra adds.
To protect yourself from all of these breakup-inflicted wounds, try getting out of your own head and into social situations that connect you with close friends or family. Sbarra says people who spend more time with others, socialize more and who have more substantive conversations with loved ones are less likely to suffer an immune-system hit.
“Having good interpersonal support in other relationships is particularly important following a breakup or divorce,” says Kiecolt-Glazer. “Social support is important for health and immune function at any time, but it assumes even greater importance when one's partner is gone.”
Eating a healthy diet, exercising and avoiding alcohol are also likely to boost your immune system and may help you stay well after a split.
Rediscovering your sense of self—that is, getting back to the stuff that defined you before your relationship—also seems to help, says Grace Larson, a researcher and graduate student in psychology at Northwestern University who, along with Sbarra, authored a 2015 study on breakups and emotional recovery.
That rediscovery starts with something as simple as changing the way you think and talk about yourself and your ex. Larson says that using terms like "we" and "us"—rather than singular pronouns like "he" and "I" or "her" and "me"—is associated with longer-lasting pain.
She also recommends taking up the activities that thrilled you before you got together with your former mate. If you used to sing karaoke, cook seafood or complete triathlons before you met your ex, get back into those activities. “In our study, people who strongly agreed with statements like, ‘I have become re-acquainted with the person I was before the relationship,’ tended to also feel less lonely and to have fewer upsetting thoughts about their breakup," she says.
Ending a close relationship is rough, and it's normal to need time to grieve and reflect. But the sooner you can get back on your feet, back out with your friends and back in touch with the person you were before your ex, the sooner your immune system will return to full power.