January 15, 2016 / Michael M. Siegel, MD
We have all suffered from a bout of loneliness from time to time. For some people, however, loneliness can be a chronic condition, which can have an adverse effect on your health.
Some of the major effects loneliness can have on the body includes sleep disruptions, an increase in risk of dementia, and even premature death due to heart complications. Loneliness can also trigger activity in some of the same regions of the brain that register physical pain. Social isolation is known to cause the body to go into a form of shock and fuel inflammation. When the immune system is affected, the region of the brain that processes fear and anxiety could also be affected causing a cycle of feeling lonely and depressed and, therefore, causing a decline in your overall health.
Researchers have found that people suffering from loneliness have increased levels of the hormone, norepinephrine, one of the main signals of the fight-or-flight response. When increased levels of norepinephrine are present, the body starts shutting down immune functions such as viral defense (protection against viruses).
Furthermore, lonely people’s white blood cells are more active, which can also increase inflammation. Inflammation has been linked to increasing your risk of multiple ailments ranging from cancer to depression. "That explains very clearly why lonely people fall at increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative disease and viral infections as well," says Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles (“Loneliness May Warp Our Genes, And OurImmune Systems,” 2015).
However, the cycle of loneliness and depression, as well as poor health, does not have to be permanent. Loneliness is hard to break away from since loneliness actually alters gene expressions, or to put another way, what genes are turned onor off in ways that prepare the body for assaults, but with some work youcan break the loop and try to push towards more social activity and better health.
Chen, Angus. “Loneliness May Warp Our Genes, And Our Immune Systems.”
Hayes, Ashley. “Loneliness: 5 Things You May Not Know.”
Gupta, Sanjay. “Why You Should Treat Loneliness as a Chronic Illness.”