A new study finds that openly acknowledging one’s sexual orientation is more than just a societal question, but an action with an impact on public health.
Researchers affiliated with the University of Montreal say lesbians, gays and bisexuals (LGBs) who have “come out” have lower stress hormone levels and fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, and burnout.
Not disclosing sexual orientation, it turns out, leads to chronic stress and a buildup of the stress hormone cortisol which results in wear and tear on multiple biological systems. Taken together, this strain is referred to as “allostatic load.”
“Our goals were to determine if the mental and physical health of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals differs from heterosexuals and, if so, whether being out of the closet makes a difference.
“We used measures of psychiatric symptoms, cortisol levels throughout the day, and a battery of over twenty biological markers to assess allostatic load,” explained lead author and doctoral student Robert-Paul Juster.
“Contrary to our expectations, gay and bisexual men had lower depressive symptoms and allostatic load levels than heterosexual men. Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals who were out to family and friends had lower levels of psychiatric symptoms and lower morning cortisol levels than those who were still in the closet.”
For the study, Montrealers of diverse sexual orientations were invited to the laboratory of Sonia Lupien, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress.
Lupien’s team recruited 87 men and women, all of whom were around 25 years of age.
Over the course of several visits, the researchers collected psychological questionnaires, asked participants to provide saliva samples to measure cortisol over two days, and calculated allostatic load indices using results from blood, saliva, and urine samples.
“Chronic stress and misbalanced cortisol levels can exert a kind of domino effect on connected biological systems,” Lupien said. “By looking at biomarkers like insulin, sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, adrenalin, and inflammation together, an allostatic load index can be constructed and then used to detect health problems before they occur.”
Researchers believe stigma-related stress might force LGBs to develop coping strategies that make them more effective at managing future stressors.
“Coming out of the closet is a major milestone in lives of LGBs that has not been studied extensively using interdisciplinary approaches that assess stress biomarkers” said co-author Nathan Grant Smith, Ph.D.
The findings underline the role self-acceptance and disclosure has on the positive health and well-being of LGBs, according to the researchers. In turn, this has important implications for ongoing political debates.
“Coming out might only be beneficial for health when there are tolerant social policies that facilitate the disclosure process,” said Juster.
“Societal intolerance during the disclosure process impairs one’s self-acceptance that generates increased distress and contributes to mental and physical health problems.”
Experts say the evidence is compelling that society must remove all stigmas associated with sexual orientation if the desire is to truly improve the health and well-being of all citizens.
Juster believes that “coming out is no longer a matter of popular debate but a matter of public health. Internationally, societies must endeavour to facilitate this self-acceptance by promoting tolerance, progressing policy, and dispelling stigma for all minorities.”
Source: University of Montreal