Everyone feels lonely from time to time. Maybe you miss a party, move to a new city, or lack a close circle of friends. Ideally, loneliness is temporary, but when it becomes chronic, it can have far-reaching consequences for our health. While we’ve known for decades that perceived social isolation, or loneliness, is a major risk factor for chronic illness and death, only more recently have we gained deeper clues into why loneliness is such a health risk.
Studies show loneliness affects immunity
In a study of overweight but otherwise healthy people, those with loneliness showed higher levels of inflammation when faced with stressful activities; another set of subjects experienced more inflammation, pain, depression and fatigue than normal, plus a reactivation of dormant viruses in the body. More recently, it was shown that loneliness reduced the ability to fight off viruses and bacteria.
Researchers say the body perceives loneliness as a stressor, causing it to go into a “fight or flight” response and release adrenal hormones. Over time this chronic stress response leads to chronic inflammation, setting the stage for numerous disorders, including depression, coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
This explains why lonely people have been shown to be at increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and viral infections.
Compounding the problem is the fact that chronic inflammation is linked with depression and other mental health issues, which may cause a lonely person to further isolate themselves in a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
The remedy for loneliness
Clearly, healthy social relationships are the best antidote to loneliness. Relationships don’t just happen — you have to make them happen.
Ideas to remedy loneliness include: Join Meetup.com groups, or start one; schedule time with friends or acquaintances; attend local events; sign up for classes to learn something new with other people; join a volunteer organization; join a church or spiritual community. If you look outside yourself you will find a cornucopia of healthy social opportunities.
Humans are designed to commune. It’s vital to health because in our history it was vital to survival. The stress response to loneliness and isolation is a red flag that you need the feeling of protection and inclusion socialization brings.
If you feel depression and lack of motivation are holding you back from reaching out to form a healthy social community, ask my office about ways diet and specific supplementation can help boost your desire to socialize.