What Happens to Your Body When You're Lonely? How It Can Be Physically Damaging

From poor sleep to an altered appetite, loneliness has heavy impacts.

Note: If you are on the System 20 wellness plan, you know that mental health is a top priority for your overall health. Start small by replacing one text conversation with a phone call to start to heal feelings of loneliness. 

If you’re not switching from one tab to the next on a computer all day, you’re likely scrolling through social media with your phone glued to your side. These unlimited channels of technology allow you to be connected to whomever, practically whenever you’d like. Yet, as of December 2018, three out of four Americans experience “moderate-high levels of loneliness,” according to a study published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics. And while you might have an idea of the effects of loneliness on your mental health, do you know what happens to your body when you’re lonely? If you’re one of the aforementioned 75 percent grappling with the emotional side of loneliness, there’s a chance you might be overlooking the physical symptoms. 

Before you’re able to accurately pin-point the physical signs of loneliness, though, you must first understand what loneliness is, and the different kinds of loneliness you might experience. According to Dr. Stuart L. Lustig, MD, MPH, National Medical Executive for Behavioral Health at Cigna, essentially, loneliness is the “distress, or emotional pain, that someone feels about a lack of connections with other people,” that often occurs when “others are not as available as much as we would want, or because the quality of interactions with them isn’t emotionally fulfilling.” 

It’s normal to experience periods of what’s called episodic loneliness, when, say, you move to a new city, or switch jobs. But, if there comes a time when you feel lonely more often than when you don’t feel lonely, or when you become more inclined to withdraw from others in your everyday life, that’s when episodic loneliness becomes chronic loneliness, Lustig tells DoctorOz.com. “[Chronic loneliness] can be linked to, and exacerbate, a number of conditions that people may not notice including headaches, high blood pressure, worsening diabetes, upset stomach, physical aches and pains, and overactive immune systems,” Lustig explains. Symptoms can be subtle, but  that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Overall, Lustig says that, according to research, “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Kory Floyd, PhD, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona and author of The Loneliness Cureagrees. In regards to the emotional sense of the word, loneliness refers to the absence or lack of social connection present than what you desire. But to clarify, you don’t have to necessarily be physically alone to feel lonely. You can be surrounded by people — co-workers at the office, roommates or a spouse at home — but it’s the subjective sense that your need for connection isn’t being met that triggers these emotions, and, as a result, physical responses, Floyd explains.

So what effect does loneliness actually have on your body and your physical well being? These are the most common physical symptoms that can ensue as a result of constant feelings of loneliness.

Your body’s ability to manage stress may become impaired.

Your body is made up of a system of hormones. Cortisol, a steroid hormone, is produced in high levels when your body is stressed in order to help your body cope with stressful situations. When you’re able to socialize, vent out any frustrations you might be harboring, and just genuinely enjoy human connections, your cortisol levels are typically low. But, if you were to experience highly stressful situations at a time when you didn’t feel socially connected with others, your body might not respond well to an excess of cortisol, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based neuropsychologist.

What’s more, Hafeez tells DoctorOz.com that, to the social self, loneliness already feels like “dire straits.” Factor in situations where you’re feeling lonely — and then become anxious on top of it all — and your nervous system will automatically go into fight-or-flight mode. When this happens, your body struggles to regain its restful state, therefore coping can become fairly difficult. 

Trouble sleeping and lack of energy.

Director of Body and Mind Medical Wellness Clinic and the author ofWell Now! Today's Comprehensive Health and Wellness Guide, Dr. Dominic Gaziano, tells DoctorOz.com that patients struggling with loneliness will often experience a lack of energy. This can either come as a direct result of a lack of sleep, a fixation on being lonely that eventually wears them out, or general sleep issues. 

According to Hafeez, there are a few key reasons why lonely people tend to be poor sleepers. The first, she explains, is that people who are regularly engaging in social activities tend to sleep better, if for no reason other than because they’ve been stimulated either emotionally, physically, or a combination of both, throughout the day. As a result, when they head to bed, they’re actually tired. Contrarily, lonely people may have less structured lives, lack stimulation, and end up going to bed without feeling tired, she says.

The second reason why people experiencing loneliness might have trouble sleeping has to do with those pesky cortisol levels. When met with stressful situations, lonely people can actually experience a major spike in cortisol, making it harder for your body to relax properly, fall (and stay) asleep. 

You might experience a variety of aches and pains. 

Emotional pain can enhance physical pain, so for people who are naturally prone to headaches and/or other forms of physical pain, there’s a good chance that the emotional distress of loneliness will make any physical pain they experience on a regular basis, worse, Lustig tells DoctorOz.com. The same rules apply for people with stomach and digestive issues, as feelings of loneliness can have a direct effect on the human microbiome (aka your gut). 

“Stomach and digestive troubles can be precipitated or heightened by hormones released when we’re upset, anxious or worried,” Lustig explains. As a result, your digestion and gut biome might be affected, and a chemical imbalance can take place, compromising the proper functioning of your digestive system.

Your hunger may change.

Hafeez tells DoctorOz.com that according to a 2015 study published in the journal Hormones and Behaviorlonely women feel hungrier after meals than women who have strong social bonds. 

“Feelings of loneliness actually cause women to feel physical hunger, even if all their caloric needs have been met,” Hafeez explained per the report. “The need for social connection is fundamental to human nature, the researchers conclude in the paper. Consequently, people may feel hungrier when they feel socially disconnected.”

How can you cope through feelings of loneliness?

Chronic loneliness affects more than your mental health; it takes a toll on your physical well-being, too. If you or a loved one feels lonely, and experience any of these physical symptoms, it’s important to reach out to a friend, family member, and/or a professional for help. That being said, Hafeez tells DoctorOz.com there are a few habits you can put into practice to help subdue the effects when feelings of loneliness start to arise.

In addition to speaking with a doctor, therapist, or other healthcare professional, Hafeez says engaging with others in a positive, healthy way can make a significant impact on your wellbeing. While texting is a start, Hafeez highly suggests choosing video chats or phone calls, volunteering, joining clubs, going to a workout class, etc., to help boost your self-esteem.

A common theme here is getting out of the house and interacting with others, but another way to feel less lonely Haffeez says, is to go outside and soak in the sunlight. “Getting active and out in the sunshine can help elevate endorphins and serotonin,” Hafeez explains. “These “brain hormones” can boost mood, help improve sleep, and make people feel happier.”

Lastly, those who suffer from chronic loneliness might benefit from joining a support group, especially if the condition is a side effect of another issue you might be dealing with, such as substance abuse, grieving the loss of a loved one, going through a divorce or break up, etc. In receiving support and encouragement from others in similar situations, Hafeez tells DoctorOz.com that this sort of company and aid can help ease symptoms of chronic loneliness.

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