How Loneliness Can Be Deadly
Written by: Lindsay Sibson
There I was… sitting on a gorgeous volcanic black-sand beach in the Canary Islands. The sun was kissing my bronzed skin as the waves joyfully tickled my toes.
If I had to pick ONE “happy place,” it would be the scene described above.
However, there was one problem I had in that moment.
I was ALONE. And not only was I alone… I was lonely.
Now let me explain… I cherish quiet moments and alone time. However, I had been backpacking in Europe by myself for 4 months at that point (which was incredible), but it also meant that I had a TON of “alone time.”
And let me tell you, feeling lonely sucks (even in beautiful places)!
The “Invisible Epidemic”
You have been there and so have I. Feelings of isolation and loneliness have plagued us all at one point or another. However, feeling lonely is much more than just feeling sad… it can also lead to chronic illness and even death.
Scientists are beginning to investigate why loneliness takes such a toll on your health. They have discovered that when you are socially isolated, it puts your body in “fight or flight” mode.
This response causes a surge of events to occur within your body as a way of preparing you for a social threat. However, these reactions also alter the production of white blood cells, which leaves you susceptible to disease.
Researchers at the University of Chicago found that loneliness – or even perceived social isolation – is linked with changes in the way your genes express themselves. The scary part is that these changes ignite inflammation while decreasing your antiviral responses.
Even though inflammation is your body’s effort to help you heal, improper inflammatory responses can damage cells and lead to other various negative health conditions if left untreated.
A recent investigation to explore more about the impact of loneliness in humans (called CTRA – conserved transcriptional response to adversity) found, after looking at “transcriptomes” or gene readouts, that:
- White blood cells belonging to 141 lonely older adults were found to be unregulated.
- Heightened activity was observed in the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for your “fight or flight” response).
- Loneliness could be used to predict future CTRA gene expression patterns (and vice versa).
- Indicates that these responses communicate with one another.
Researchers also studied primates to observe how loneliness affects CTRA gene expression. The same discovery was found that lonely macaques (a breed of monkey) displayed raised CTRA activity as well as an increase in their “fight or flight” response chemicals (norepinephrine/noradrenaline).
This increase in norepinephrine triggers the production of immature monocyte, which is a type of white blood cell that causes less antiviral gene expression and a more pro-inflammatory response. When the researchers looked at the blood samples of lonely humans and monkeys, they found a large quantity of monocytes in BOTH!
The impact of the change in gene expression patterns revealed that the lonely monkeys experienced weakened antiviral responses to infections as well as primate HIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). They also had higher levels of viral replication in both their brain and blood.
These findings have led the researchers to suggest a model that explains how elevated CTRA activity is a result of a loneliness-driven “fight or flight” response. Thus, this response enhances immature monocyte levels.
These gene expression patterns – caused by your body’s response to loneliness – result in leaving you vulnerable to chronic disease and infection due to inflammation and a weakened antiviral response.
To read a detailed report of these findings, visit Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Try these 5 tips to feel more connected:
1. Find An Activity Or Group To Join Through Meetup.com – You can meet people that have similar interests and join their “meetups.”
2. DO Something For Someone Else – Head to your local store or coffee shop and compliment someone else or help someone with their bags. Even holding the door and smiling at someone can go a long way!
3. Reach Out To Someone – Say “hi” to someone you admire on the internet… or someone you haven’t talked to in a while! I did this while traveling and got connected with some really great people. It takes a little courage, but what’s the worst that could happen? They don’t respond? NO biggie! Try someone else.
4. But Now… Step Away From Social Media – It is NOT real life! Real life is happening outside your doors right now… not on your phone screen. What you see people post on social media is only a fraction of what is actually happening in life. Go observe the world in real time by heading outdoors for a walk.
5. Message Me – Find me on Facebook, Instagram, or Youtube – I love meeting and learning from new people. Guaranteed I’ll write you back!
Always remember… We are in this together.
SHARE this article and we can combat loneliness – TOGETHER!
Lindsay Sibson turned her lifelong dream of traveling the world into a reality when she first stepped on a plan in April of 2014. With the simple intention of learning more about this beautiful world, she stepped away from corporate America to explore an alternative lifestyle of long term international travel, volunteering, blogging and pursuing a blissfully happy and fulfilling way of life.
Lindsay documents her journey in hopes of empowering others to find their passion, reignite their spark and freshen their outlook on life. Connect with her on her website and follow her travels on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/_traveloholic_).
Through her blog, Lindsay documents her journey in hopes of empowering others to find their passion, reignite their spark and freshen their outlook on life.
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