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Tossing & Turning All Night? You Might Be Feeling Lonely, Says A Science Journalist 

Young sad woman lying on a bed with eyes opened
Image by Danil Nevsky / Stocksy
December 11, 2020
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It's no secret we're facing a loneliness epidemic as a society, one that's only been exacerbated by the pandemic. And considering loneliness has been linked to a number of health concerns—including heart disease1, metabolic syndrome2, diabetes3, dementia4, and depression5—it's so important to foster companionship, even while safely social distancing. Another reason to make combating isolation a priority? A better snooze. 

According to science journalist Marta Zaraska, author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, those who feel lonely actually get less restful sleep. (Research backs it up, too, as this study shows those who identify as lonely face poorer sleep quality.)

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"The reason for that is actually quite fascinating," Zaraska explains on the mindbodygreen podcast. In fact, she says your body is hardwired to feel restless when you're isolated. Below, she breaks it down.

Why those who feel lonely tend to get worse sleep.

According to Zaraska, the reason has evolutionary roots: "In our evolutionary past, when you were lonely, it meant you were outside of your tribe. You were kicked out, lost, or whatever. And suddenly, you're alone in the [desert] with all these wild animals around." Essentially, you wouldn't want to sleep too deeply in that situation because then you'd be vulnerable to predators in the wild. Rather, you'd want to stay vigilant, awake, ready to take on any mountain lions that come your way. 

Of course, this is not so applicable to modern life (unless you frequently wander the desert). However, says Zaraska, your body didn't exactly shake that innate response as humans evolved. That's why when you feel lonely and isolated—just like you might if you were exiled back in the day—that same stress response may have you feeling wired. Research even shows how chronic isolation can disrupt a number of neuroendocrine factors that can lead to a higher stress response6. In more basic terms: "Still, when we are feeling lonely, we feel that we're outside of the tribe," Zaraska explains. "And we look out for the lions." 

The takeaway. 

Loneliness is associated with so many health concerns—it only fits that poor sleep makes it onto the roster. Needless to say, a sense of companionship and belonging is crucial for overall well-being; while it might be a bit more difficult to connect with others right now, it's not impossible to boost your relationships. In fact, virtual hangs have a worthy place in the conversation, as do acts of kindness. If you can't seem to catch zzz's, consider it a sign to focus on your high-quality connections in any way you can.

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