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From low immunity to depression, this is what loneliness does to your body and mind

Published on:21 September 2020, 20:07pm IST
Loneliness is pretty common and natural but prolonged loneliness can affect both your physical as well as mental health. Let’s see how.
Chetna Pattnaik
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Loneliness can result in poor health and there is science to prove it. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
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We have all been through phases in life where we have felt lonely—even when surrounded by friends and family. Although this is completely natural, the truth also is that when you feel lonely you feel unsafe—both mentally and physically.

What we call FOMO (the fear of missing out) in millennial terminology, actually dates back to prehistoric times wherein people experience distress when they drift away from a social group and that serves as a warning.

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However, prolonged loneliness or recurring episodes of it can affect both your physical as well as mental health. And increasing number of researches are being conducted to establish a biological link between feeling lonely, physical health and mental health.

Loneliness is associated with the hardening of the arteries, inflammation in the body, Alzheimer’s disease, and even behavioural issues. Let’s take a look at how being lonely affect our body and mind.

1. Loneliness can affect your immune system
Loneliness can strain the immune system. As per, Cacioppo and Steve Cole of UCLA, genes tend to get overexpressed in lonely individuals include which can lead to inflammation in the body.

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There is a difference between being lonely and being alone. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Several key gene sets, like the ones responsible for production of antibodies and antiviral responses, are under expressed when you are lonely. This lets down your defences to viral and other invaders.

So, what happens is that the immune system has to decide between fighting viral threats and protecting against bacterial invasions given its limited fighting capability. When we are lonely, we view the world as a threatening place, and our immune system starts focusing on bacteria rather than viral threats, and that lowers our body’s ability to fight illnesses.

Additionally, according to a research presented in Ohio State University, if you are lonely, you are more likely to produce more inflammation-related proteins as a response to stress. Inflammation links to several health conditions like type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

2. It can affect your heart health
A 2012 Harvard study suggests that middle aged adults, displaying signs of loneliness are more susceptible to the effects of stress which in turn increases their risk of dying because of a heart disease by 24%. It so happens that elevated levels of stress hormones increase the accumulation of cholesterol deposits in the heart.

Not only that, loneliness increases circulating stress hormone cortisol levels and blood pressure. The heart muscles have to work even harder as the circulatory system slows down. The blood flow turbulence created in this process subjects the blood vessels to a lot of damage.

3. You show alleviated signs of depression
A research conducted by the University of Chicago explains that you tend to show more depressive symptoms when you feel lonely.

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Do you know, feeling lonely can increase inflammation in the body? Image courtesy: Shutterstock

In a lonely person, cortisol and other brain hormones that are associated with stress get activated and cause depression. The study also says that positive social interactions play an instrumental role in aiding such a depression, sometimes even more than antidepressants.

4. It affects your eating habits
Research shows that when you dine solo, you are more likely to eat an unhealthier diet. When you cook for and with somebody else, you tend to prepare a more wholesome meal containing a wider range of foods, than if you are eating by yourself where you just throw in a few things together to make something edible out of it. A study published in the journal, Health Psychology explains that people who are lonely are also very likely to be physically inactive and tend to skip more meals.

5. Induces hyper-reactivity in social situations
Loneliness can destroy your quality of sleep, so that a person’s sleep is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. The cycle created by loneliness can be a downward spiral. The UCLA study by Cacioppo and team have found that lonely people view their own social interactions more negatively and form worse impressions of the people they interact with. With loneliness you tend to sense when social connections begin to fray and your brain becomes alert against social threats.

When you are lonely, there is hyper-reactivity to negative behaviours coming from other people, and you will view those maltreatments as heavier than they really are. This can make you defensive of social interactions and hence fall deeper into the loneliness hole.

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Chetna Pattnaik Chetna Pattnaik

Understanding fitness the hard way, Chetna has finally learnt to strike a balance between her protein shake and her beer and making room for her writing desk and her gym at the same time.