Strengthen Immune System | Natural Health Blog

Date: 05/26/2011    Written by: Beth Levine

The Health Risks of Loneliness

We all have a few acquaintances who are clearly lonely people, with no significant other, a small number of friends, and a limited social calendar.  Now it seems that their solitary lives may lead to more than just loneliness; they may actually increase their chance of developing life-threatening illnesses.

A recent study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, found that people who are lonely are more disposed to developing chronic inflammation -- and the diseases it can cause, such as cardiovascular illness and cancer -- than the more outgoing among us.1  In fact, loneliness was shown to have as great an impact on mortality rates as that of alcohol use and even smoking.

The researchers analyzed 148 earlier studies that involved approximately 300,000 subjects over an average period of more than seven years.  Even when taking into consideration age and pre-existing health issues, sociable individuals had a 50 percent higher chance of surviving the span of the study than did lonely people.

According to a separate study that took place at the University of California, Los Angeles, certain genes are regulated differently in lonely people than they are in the extroverted,2 which could help explain the other researchers' findings.  The scientists at UCLA took white blood cell samples from populations of lonely and sociable people.  They measured the activity levels of numerous genes and found that genes involved in protecting against viral infections are less active in the lonely, while those genes responsible for fighting off bacteria are more active. In fact, Jon Barron discussed in some detail the neuropeptide/immune system connection by which your body translates loneliness and depression into a weakened immune system in his book Lesson from the Miracle Doctors in the chapter titled, appropriately: The Thought that Kills.

And now it seems that this same connection accounts for systemic inflammation.  Inflammation is typically a bodily response to bacterial infection, so when loneliness becomes a chronic condition, those overactive genes in the white blood cells increase their activity level.  It is the loneliness that keeps perpetuating this cycle and causing the bodies of the lonely to jump into potential bacteria-fighting action and therefore put tissues in a state of perpetual inflammation, opening the door to a host of illnesses.

Unfortunately, if earlier research is to be believed, there may not be much we can do to alleviate loneliness.  And it's not only those who are usually by themselves who experience loneliness.  A 2009 study conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago, the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University, reviewed loneliness data completed by about 5,000 participants in the Framingham Heart Study.3  Every few years over a six-year period, the volunteers answered questions about how often they felt lonely.  Participants who said they never felt lonely typically saw four social contacts weekly, while those who felt lonely five or more days every week had social interaction with an average of 3.4 people -- only slightly fewer than the non-lonely subjects.  Having extra friends didn't help much -- each additional friend only reduced loneliness by 0.04 days a week, or two days a year. And having 8,000 "really close" friends on Facebook doesn't seem to help either when it comes to alleviating loneliness.

Even worse, those who started out not reporting loneliness were more likely to become lonely after spending time with lonely friends or family.  The research found that the family members and friends of subjects who reported loneliness had a 52 percent increased likelihood of reporting loneliness themselves two years later.  The closer a subject was to a lonely person, the greater the likelihood that the subject also would become lonely. In other words, it appears that loneliness is contagious. Or as the Buddah once said to his student Ananda who asked him, ‘Master, is it true that half the battle is one's associations?"

"No, Ananda, this is incorrect, it is the whole battle."

So what can you do if you or one of your loved ones is predisposed to loneliness and all of its subsequent health risks? 

Often not much! Loneliness and its close cousin depression can be like a vicious self-reinforcing whirlpool that draws its victims relentlessly down. And it is here that Jon Barron's Baseline of Health Program makes a world of sense. If someone is deep in a loneliness/depression downward spiral, telling them a few jokes and inviting them to party is not going to help. They need to do everything, and they need to do it all at once. They need to make dietary and supplement changes that reinforce the body's natural sense of well being. When the body feels good, you feel good; the body and mind are connected. They need to exercise since exercise releases "feel good" endorphins. And they need to turn their thoughts around. And for this, as Jon talks about in Miracle Doctors, there's everything from meditation to affirmation to visualization to taking an herbal break.  Or if all else fails, you might just hang onto what Henry Rollins, the American singer/songwriter/celebrity once said: "Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better."

 

1 Holt-Lunstad, Julianne; Smith, Timothy B.; Layton, J. Bradley. "Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review." PLoS Medicine. July 2010.  Public Library of Science. 12 May 2011. <http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000316>.

2 Cole, Steve W.; Hawkley, Louise C.; Arevalo, Jesusa M.; Sung, Caroline Y., Rose, Robert M.; Cacioppo, John T. "Social Regulation of Gene Expression in Human Leukocytes." Genome Biology. 13 September 2007.  National Center for Biotechnology Information. 13 May 2011. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2375027/>.

3 Cacioppo, John T.; Fowler, James H.; Christakis, Nicholas A. "Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. December 2009.  American Psychological Association. 13 May 2011. <http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/97/6/977/>.

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Comments

  •  
    Submitted by Maya on
    May 31, 2011 - 5:48pm

    Hi Beth & Jon -- I think you've touched on something extremely important here. It's been on my mind since reading your article. And I believe there's a lot more to the "remedy" than simply going out and surrounding onesself with people. As you point out, people are even lonely in families, lonely among friends, lonely in crowds... is it all self-created? Or could it be that our culture has also stripped us of the basic tenets of respect, in other words the practice of knowing where we end and others begin?

    I personally believe that our modern culture is cancerous, and that loneliness and isolation are symptoms of this disease, not the cause. It's very similar to how GERD symptoms *appear* to be the result of too much acid (or digestive strength), whereas in fact it's the result of too little. Loneliness isn't the result of too much time alone, it's the result of boundaries that have become weakened in response to a toxic environment, and so reacting, they grow thicker.

    Thus, saying that people should have more people around is like telling them to take an antacid. It depends on who the other people are. Surrounding myself with more abusive controlling people obviously would not be good....

    I have recently had a huge awakening where suddenly I *saw* that even well-meaning people are often very toxic because they are exercising power wrongly over others. Here is an example. Think about how common the following statements are, from even well-meaning family or friends:

    -- That doesn't hurt
    -- You have nothing to cry about
    -- You're making a big deal out of nothing
    -- You're just trying to get attention
    -- You need to grow up
    -- You're just jealous because xyz
    -- You don't care about my feelings
    -- You think you know everything
    -- You're so stubborn
    -- You're too sensitive
    -- You never listen
    -- You're not paying attention
    -- You're trying to start a fight
    -- You don't know what you're talking about
    -- etc, etc, etc.

    The point is that these are all very common!! But notice how they all start with *you*? Why is the speaker telling me who I am inside? I now understand that there are (2) elements to these statements -- the element of CONTENT, and the element of POWER.

    I used to get "hooked" by the CONTENT of the sentences -- like, maybe I'm not a great listener..., maybe I am stubborn..., maybe I'm not caring enough..., maybe I don't pay good attention..., etc.... And then I'd be on a spin, trying to do my part to improve the relationship. But I never questioned the nonsensical idea that the other person has the ability to TELL me what my thoughts, feelings, motivations and intentions are to begin with! I totally missed that they were misusing their power and trying to "create" me as someone other than who I actually *am.*

    "Naming others" is a power trip, a way of defining or "creating" others in your image (the image inside your head). But no human has the ability to walk into another person's head or heart, take a little look around, make an inventory, and come back and give a report. WTF? ONLY GOD can see into a person's interior, no other human being.

    Defining others does far more for the namer to feel superior, than it does to "help" the person being labeled. In fact, it dismisses the listener. The speaker has "switched" to enjoying his/her "creation" -- whereas the listener, who they actually *are*, is no longer welcome. With each statement, the listener's beingness is banished and they have to fight to be allowed back in the....fight??

    It even continues into good labels:

    -- You're so sweet
    -- You're such a good cook
    -- You know how to make me feel good
    -- etc, etc, etc

    We don't often think about these because they are "compliments." But think about it this way -- who has more power, the king or the kingmaker??

    The truth is expressed when someone reports from THEIR OWN interior, using sentences that start with *I*, like:

    -- I love this gift. (not: You're so sweet)
    -- This casserole is delicious! (not: You're such a good cook)
    -- Thank you for rubbing my sore feet. (not: You know how to make me feel good)
    -- I feel vulnerable and overlooked when people praise you. (not: You're just trying to get attention)
    -- I feel unheard. (not: You never listen)
    -- I'm uncomfortable with your anger. (not: You're trying to start a fight)
    -- I'm being hooked by old tapes that say I have to walk on eggshells. (not: You're too sensitive)

    I think bio-chemical and physiological metaphors are fantastic for also understanding our psyches. Every cell needs a healthy membrane. A healthy membrane isn't rigid -- like skin, it flexes and breathes, sweats and eliminates, but it keeps the rain out and my organs in. My membrane, physical or psychic, MUST be healthy for me to be healthy. And yet, if a cell gets placed in a toxic environment, the membrane is the first to react.

    We are all vulnerable beings, and words are powerful. When we hear ideas, beliefs, or opinions repeatedly we absorb them -- and then the speaker leaves and we just repeat the tapes in our heads!!

    Lonely, isolated people, to me are like canaries in a coal mine. They are showing us that our world, and our interpersonal relations, shaped by our logos (words) and their effect on our minds, is increasingly toxic. The purpose of a cell is to LIVE -- breathe in, breathe out, eat, excrete, pump, pump, pump... like the tides, in the huge teeming pumping organism of Gaia, even Universe. We are pumps! We need healthy membranes! Good fences make good neighbors! And a friend, partner, or family member who doesn't respect my membrane, or my boundary, actually harms me. Hence a shrivelling reaction into isolation.

    And still we blame the victims... Still we tell them it's their "fault" they have this disease, and watch out, it's contagious... I propose that you are looking at the wrong cause. Loneliness and isolation are merely symptoms of a much larger disease. The contagion isn't "sourced" from the lonely person -- it's sourced from our cultural training, the erosion of our foundations of respect, and our increasing misuse of power.

    Love is respect -- respect for the sovereignty of others as well as the self. I don't let people tell me who I am anymore. I reject power tactics that seek to define me, a separate being with the right and duty to define myself.

    I say now, tell me how YOU are, don't tell me how I am. By drawing this clear boundary I am much more able to nurture myself and heal. In that sense, my "immune system" is now turning around -- but the environment is still toxic to a large degree. I think it remains to be seen whether the "membranes" of lonely isolated people can return to full functionality (become less thickened) in the current milieu, but certainly the allopathic approach is limited when evaluating their "condition."

  •  
    Submitted by Jeremy on
    July 7, 2011 - 5:20pm

    It is extremely important to improve and increase one's health at all times. Being lonely, or having stresses can detract from a person's health if left unattended. Working in natural health remedies, it becomes more and more apparent that many of the easy cures do not work, and are a waste of money. When all aspects of our health need to be considered, sometimes something as simple as being lonely can really hurt. The more pain we have in our lives, the unhealthier we will become. In order to change how healthcare is being taught and practiced, we need to help our fellow man however we can, to increase the health of our community. For this reason I do perform free or discounted practices when my clients have no money. Its a common theme right now! I work in San Diego, contact me for great chiropractic work for little or nothing.

  •  
    Submitted by Guest on
    August 22, 2011 - 9:44am

    I get very discouraged when I read articles like this because I AM predisposed to loneliness, which can feed my depression, and certainly is a tell-tale sign of my lack of a solid support group.

    It's like "you're going to get sick because you can't feel a sense of belonging or enjoyment with others." so what am I supposed to do about that?

    I regularly try to establish a system that will support me (like a self-care "team" that includes my drs., my therapist, my pilates instructor; trying to set dinner party dates, canning dates - activities that I enjoy that involve others. Everyone is so busy, that I still find myself annoyed and a bit of a failure because my attempts at actually being involved and proactive don't work. Which leads to hopelessness and a "why bother" feeling.

    So are us socially-backward and socially "undernourished" folks just going to have to suck it up and expect to be more ill or unhealthy? (I've tried changing my diet, too. No effect on my experience of interacting with others.)

    I'm not trying to be negative - this is actually the experience I'm having and I don't want to think that this is all there is...

  •  
    Submitted by Bobby Davis on
    August 31, 2011 - 9:11am

    For the last 20 yrs I have lived alone with my cats . . . God bless them and their unconditional love! I'm 68 almost 69 yrs old and have two grown children and 4 grandchildren which if I'm lucky I'll see my daughter once a month for dinner at my house. My son and his second wife live about 38 miles from me and even when they lived down the street, they never included me in their life. I have accepted that I will always live alone and be alone and have to take care of myself. Actually, I grew up being a self reliant, invisible, middle child whose Mother said "I don't write or pay attention to you because I know you will always be okay". Wow! I should be able to hang my hat on that you'd think. The message sent was you can take care of yourself and don't need anyone or anyone's support and basically that is what my life has been like. Yes, it's lonely, and I wish I had a few good friends who weren't so busy with their own lives caring for their grandchildren and husbands.

    I don't dwell on it anymore and have learned to be really very self sufficient except when it comes to doing things I can't do like, change light bulbs that are too high up, mow my own yard, fix the plumbing or even drive somewhere at night or to places where I've never been.

    My days are full of work that I've done for over 30 yrs, I'm a "health nut" and read everything I can about holistic health and taking care of myself; I'm a Bible Student and spend a lot of time with my Lord in studying his word. I love to make hand made greeting cards for family and friends and my next project will be to get involved in helping seniors who are by themselves and need a friend. Perhaps the best thing for those of us who feel isolated and lonely is to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves and be a blessing to them. I'm looking forward to my next adventure. God bless you all for your thoughts and sharing your experiences. We all learn from each other, don't we?

  •  
    Submitted by Maya on
    September 6, 2011 - 4:10pm

    I honestly don't think our loneliness is all our fault. I thought I would share this article that a friend posted on Facebook. It's quite enlightening, and it also has some "detox" recommendations.

    Toxic Friends? 8 in 10 People Endure Poisonous Pals
    • Self-absorbed sidekicks and emotional vampires top list of unhealthy company we keep, survey shows.

    http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/44205822

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Detox your friendships

    Need help dealing with a toxic pal? Try these tips:

    • Self-absorbed sidekicks: Change the conversation from him/her to you (which won't be easy). Change the subject and/or explicitly tell your narcissistic friend that you need and deserve their attention.

    • Chronic downers: Set firm boundaries and tell him/her your limits (and enforce them!). Also encourage them to befriend other people — as in, spread the misery over more friends.

    • Overly critical chums: Have confidence in your own values and opinions. Also realize you may need to agree to disagree or else your relationship will be filled with contention.

    • Underminers: Recognize that this person is probably a "frenemy" and exercise caution, i.e., watch your back. Also, if the undermining is excessive and leaves you feeling badly about yourself, you may need to back away from the friendship.

    • Unreliable flakes: You may need to remind them of their commitments. Also remember, if someone is consistently unreliable, why would you ever rely on them?

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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