The fall after my marriage ended, my physician was stumped about why my blood sugars were high. She sent me to an endocrinologist, who confirmed a surprising diagnosis: diabetes, type 1, or what’s sometimes called type 1.5, which comes from the immune system attacking the pancreas.
(In the more common type 2 diabetes, the pancreas typically still produces insulin, but the body’s cells are resistant to it and unable to metabolize sugar.)
Type 1 is usually diagnosed in children. It’s rare to be diagnosed as an adult, but when you are, it tends to progress more slowly. Since I still had some functional beta cells in my pancreas, I was told I might be able to delay the need for daily insulin shots if I could manage the carbohydrate load in my diet, work on my stress levels, and exercise after eating.
An old college friend, weirdly, had also been diagnosed with adult-onset type 1 diabetes some months after her marriage exploded. Now she wore an insulin pump 24 hours a day and worked out on a stationary bike after eating carb-heavy meals. There was no diabetes in my family, nor in hers. Was divorce diabetes a thing? It is impossible to know the answer to that, at least as far as she and I are concerned as individuals. What is known is that autoimmune diseases can appear after a stress “trigger,” according to Stanford University’s Michael Snyder, a molecular geneticist and himself a midlife diabetic.
“Diabetes is known to be associated with stress,” he said, explaining that under certain circumstances, our DNA can start expressing diabetes promoter genes. High levels of cortisol, known to be elevated during emotionally stressful times, interfere with the production and regulation of insulin.
While scientists have known for decades that death and disease increase (substantially!) after divorce, some are now trying to investigate which antibodies, inflammation markers, and gene sequences can lead to trouble. Researchers at Ohio State University found that adults who were struggling emotionally with their recent divorces (in this study, the time frame was within two years) produced fewer natural killer cells, which are important for fighting cancer and other diseases. They were also more likely to get sick from viruses like Epstein-Barr than their married peers.
But why? To find out, I reached out to Steve Cole, the founder of an emerging field called social genomics.
It all started in the mid-1990s, when Cole was a young researcher more interested in viruses than in social relationships. He joined a team of epidemiologists and psychologists wondering why some gay men with the HIV virus were getting sicker and dying at a faster rate than others. Cole, who works in psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, looked at the blood samples of 72 men over an eight-year period. He found that closeted men, who faced the stresses of secrecy and possible discovery on top of the stress of their HIV status, got sick two to three years earlier than men with HIV who were out. Their nervous systems were easily triggered into a stress state by social circumstances. Cole found these men produced more of the hormone norepinephrine—a key driver of our fight-or-flight response. The hormone made T cells more vulnerable to attack by HIV, with the virus replicating 10 times faster than it would otherwise.