Loneliness From a Medical Point of View

dealing with loneliness

With cold weather moving in, is there anything more appealing than cuddling up to a partner and hibernating for a significant period of time? While this cozy act of intimacy undoubtedly has a number of positive emotional benefits, so does it reap advantages for individual health thanks to the power of touch. Be it a warm embrace, a hand to hold, or even a pat on the back, a touch, when respective and consensual, sends positive signals throughout the body. This touch can be a reminder that we are not stranded on an island. We are part of a community or a pair. We have teammates, pals, or partners, and the sensation of touch doesn’t only bring us warm, fuzzy feelings inside. Contact has also proven to boost physical health and immune systems. According to Dr. Tiffany Field, “when you stimulate the pressure receptors under the skin, the heart slows down, food in the gastrointestinal tract is absorbed into the body better, and serotonin is released into the bloodstream.”

There are two powerful chemicals in the body that react to this type of interaction. Touch stimulates oxytocin, a hormone made in the brain that is commonly referred to as the love hormone or cuddle chemical. Oxytocin plays a role in a number of physical and emotional alterations on the body, lowering levels of anxiety, protecting the intestine against damage, aiding in childbirth, and more. Touch also lowers cortisol, which has a strong influence on blood pressure, heart and blood vessel tone and contraction, central nervous system activation, blood sugar levels, and immune responses, among other key bodily functions. Together, the body falls under less stress and blood moves at a more stable pace, which leads us to better sleep, better digestive health, more energy, and stronger overall health.

Let’s not forget about one of strongest body parts — the brain. The body and the mind have such profound impacts upon one another. Because touch triggers strong responses that affects sensory nerves and the psyche of the person, these effects loop and continue deeper into the system like a pinball machine, affecting overall well-being and health. In one study, a large group of people recorded how much social interaction they encountered based on how many hugs they received a day before being exposed to the common cold. The results revealed that those who experienced more social interactions conquered the virus better and showed fewer symptoms than those who experienced less human contact prior to contracting the infection.

However, those who deal with social anxiety, trauma, or those emerging from a relationship may prefer further distance from contact. There is an alternative. The health benefits that arise from touch is the leading idea behind weighted blankets. These blankets are filled with plastic poly pellets, similar to those used in Beanie Babies. For those who are not looking, interested in, or ready for a partner, weighted blankets offer pressure to the user which taps into sensory input that can simulate the feeling of a hug or embrace. This pressure is also used as a sleep aid for those who experience anything from irritability to full blown panic attacks. Recommended specifically to those who suffer from anxiety disorders, these blankets tap into the understanding that a warm embrace serves us well.

Touch is not the only component to combating loneliness either. Conversation, companionship, and mental stimulation through relationships play a large role, too. According to recent studies, loneliness can have the same or similar negative health effects as obesity or smoking, increase blood pressure and increase the chance for cognitive decline and depression. A psychiatrist weighs in. “Lest there be any doubt that loneliness has far ranging effects on the health of the body, consider the intriguing findings from Dr. S.W. Cole and colleagues, at the UCLA School of Medicine,” said Ron Pies in an article regarding loneliness and health. “These researchers looked at levels of gene activity in the white blood cells of individuals with either high or low levels of loneliness. Subjects with high levels of subjective social isolation — basically, loneliness — showed evidence of an over-active inflammatory response. These same lonely subjects showed reduced activity in genes that normally suppress inflammation. Such gene effects could explain reports of higher rates of inflammatory disease in those experiencing loneliness.” So whether it is starting out with a weighted blanket, opting for more hugs, or working constructively on improving intimacy with a partner, open your arms to the power of touch — it will pay off.

by Sarah Lisovich from CIA Medical.