Is Loneliness Contributing to Your Insomnia and Other Health Issues?

by | Apr 12, 2024 | Emotional Wellness | 0 comments

Over the years many factors have been considered by societies when trying to improve sleep, including light exposure, body temperature, evening wind-down rituals, and more. But how often is fostering close emotional relationships part of the strategy to reduce the burden of poor sleep?

A longitudinal and cross-sectional analyses from 95 045 community-living adults older than 65 years old were assessed to establish the link between sleep, social isolation and loneliness. What they found was that those who were socially isolated and lonely were much more likely to experience insufficient sleep, nonrestorative sleep, early-morning awakenings and difficulty initiating sleep and that those living with another person enjoy better sleep quality.

Sleep plays a fundamental role in health, performance, energy levels and mental health. Inadequate sleep could lead to poor cognition, a greater burden of disease, coronary artery disease, and an increased risk of depression. Giles Watkins, author of Positive Sleep, told the Epoch Times that when he studied the subject of sleep as part of his Master’s program he looked at an American source which showed that 75 ailments were linked to insufficient sleep and a European source which showed 85 ailments could be traced back to poor sleep. “Just about everything you can think of, which you might feel is wrong with you, could be traced back to sleep,” Mr Watkins said.

Matt Walker, author of Why We Sleep, believes that we should be more concerned about improving sleep quality as this would make a big difference to our collective lives as a human race. It would positively impact our corporations, salaries, commercial productivity, our professions, our moral nature as well as the education of our children. Walker further states that sleep deprivation places an individual “into the least useful brain state for the purpose of information gathering” and that “you can change someone’s strongly held beliefs, behaviours and attitudes by taking sleep away from them.”

Why Loneliness Causes Insomnia

Insomnia symptoms can be sparked by loneliness through various pathways such as heightened vigilance, anxiety and increased stress, according to researchers. When humans perceive environments as unsafe (common when feeling lonely), we are hardwired to feel vulnerable and unconsciously vigilant which could disrupt sleep.

Loneliness can also lead to long-term stress signalling, which impacts the immune system and inflammation levels in the body negatively. With a larger cortisol response when feeling lonely, the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical) axis could become dysregulated and disrupt sleep but also enhance inflammatory processes which play a role in chronic diseases, atherosclerosis and hypertension.

Sleep has also throughout history been seen as a shared experience. With co-sleeping comes more safety and, therefore, more restful sleep.

The Health Consequences of Loneliness

Loneliness is not only harmful when it comes to our sleep, but recent research has found that it is a major risk factor for mortality. In a report by the National Academy of Sciences, it has been shown that loneliness seems to be especially deadly to the elderly.

One reason why it could be such a major risk factor for mortality could be because the regulation of blood pressure differs between non-lonely and lonely adults. Vascular resistance specifically (blood flow affected through constriction) is higher in lonely individuals. Heightened vascular resistance puts more stress on the lining of vessels which could play a role in atherosclerosis and hypertension.

Loneliness can also lead to a loss of executive control, an inability to regulate self-control behaviours and reduced physical activity engagement. Also, what we see in later stages of life, is that loneliness seems to have an impact on dementia and cognitive decline. These debilitating diseases can, in fact, further distance the individual from their social network.

Lastly, it has also been shown that a high amount of hospital visits are a result of loneliness (pdf).

Increased Loneliness

As loneliness is significantly impacting our sleep and as loss of sleep is impacting the collective health of our societies, an important question to consider is why so many people in our modern societies are feeling lonely. Of course, there may be many reasons, but one could be that we are becoming more disconnected because of technology. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that heavy social media use could cause feelings of social isolation and loneliness. People who spend more than two hours on social media per day seem to double their chances of feeling lonely and socially isolated.

Alexander Bell, Keynote Speaker and Creator and Author of Tech Rules told the Epoch Times that “technology, particularly our smartphone devices, provide us with an always on, always available, twenty-four hours, seven days a week, unlimited access to connection”. “It feels like a VIP party in our pocket that we’re always invited to. And we find ourselves turning to our devices the very moment we feel alone, bored, or left with our own thoughts. Convenience is the biggest killer of connection and when left to our own devices, we just end up back on our devices,” Mr Bell says.  

What can we do about this? What does a healthy technology culture look like? Mr Bell recommends that we make time and space for genuine connections to take place, in person, in life, and on a regular basis. It needs to be scheduled. We need to also create Tech Rules to protect us and set us up for more authentic human connections.

Another reason why many people are feeling more lonely could be traced back to infancy. For an infant to truly thrive, social comfort and contact are essential. Only good nutrition (without connection) is not enough for optimal health and well-being. Because of this, sensitivity to isolation can already be fostered in attachment security in mother-infant bonds very early in life. Unresponsive parenting can foster distrust and insecurity and this can distort perceptions of social isolation and feelings of loneliness.

With this said, an interesting modern phenomenon is how popular sleep-training or cry-it-out methods have become, which leaves infants isolated to ‘self-settle.”

Imogen Russel, holistic sleep consultant and founder of The Little Sleep Company, told the Epoch Times that expecting our infants to self-settle might be unrealistic. These methods encourage parents to put their children to bed and then leave them, despite how much crying there might be, to learn to ‘self-settle.’ It’s been popularised by the promise of a quick fix. But it is said that it takes a village to raise a kid, “but the village has dissipated a bit,” says Mrs Russel. She further explains that ‘self-settling’ is a highly complex cognitive process. Some adults are still unable to regulate their own feelings and find it difficult to take themselves from a real place of anger, distress, upset or heightened emotion to a place of calm. “Trying to expect a young baby or child to be left alone and just magically learn how to do this is a little bit puzzling.”

Mrs Russel says that what babies or young children need is what we call co-regulation. Co-regulation is where together the parent and the child become settled and calm as the parent comforts their child. “We can’t force sleep, but we can enable calm,” she says. The parents’ role in facilitating sleep is, therefore, to ensure that the child is calm. We can create calm by co-regulating with our children. When a child eventually falls asleep using a cry-it-out method, the terminology that has been used in research papers is ‘learned helplessness,’ says Mrs Russel. “They come to a point where they have cried so much that they shut down and stop calling out for help because they know that it’s not going to come.”

Music therapist, Inamari Heuer, told the Epoch Times that as a species we need connection and relationships to thrive. This is because connection brings security. She said that the basis of music therapy is for her as a therapist to co-regulate with clients to enable them to find techniques that regulate them when experiencing difficult emotions. “This all goes back to a mother’s response to an infant’s cry. Mothers are born with the instinct to want to comfort, feed and nurture a baby, but sleep-training goes against our natural instincts as mothers,” she says. “To expect an infant to self-regulate is completely unrealistic, as this part of the brain is only developed around six or seven years old, if and only if the child has been allowed to co-regulate with an adult at a younger age. The message needed to be communicated to the child from the adult is that ‘I am here with you, I can see you are feeling [frustrated], I am here, you don’t have to go through this alone.’ This is very important messaging for the child to understand for them to be able to self-regulate at a later stage,” Mrs Heuer said.  

“Sleep training does not teach an infant to self-regulate. On the contrary, the message the child gets is ‘I am alone, I cannot trust anybody, no one is on their way to help me, so I might as well stop screaming.” According to Mrs Heuer, the child will also be releasing a lot of cortisol which will not result in a good night’s sleep. “Co-regulation is the key to having a good night’s sleep. If a child never experienced proper co-regulation, it will also be challenging to have this assurance of safety as an adult,” says Mrs Heuer.

If a child feels a sense of belonging and connectedness it won’t only give them access to deeper and sounder sleep, but it can even protect them from physical health problems later in life. The importance of connection in childhood, is, therefore, essential.

How Do We Combat Loneliness?

The opposite of the word loneliness could be to feel a sense of community. Interestingly enough, the word community is derived from commun, meaning common in Latin. The same root is used in ‘communicate’ (to share our understanding) and ‘communion’ (to share our experience). Community is, therefore, “about an effort to animate what we have in common,” Mark Nepo, author of More Together Than Alone, wrote.  

The concept of community also makes out a very important part of the Blue Zones research. The areas around the globe with the most centenarians seem to all focus on the following elements:

  • Having the right tribe: both bad habits (smoking, loneliness, obesity, excessive drinking) and good habits are contagious. In the Blue Zones, people have social circles that support healthy behaviours.
  • The world’s longest-lived people also tend to spend a lot of effort and time on their relationships with family.
  • Ageing parents are kept near children to favour the parents’ survival but also to bring more wisdom into their communities.
  • Centenarians often belong to faith-based communities. It is said that people tend to live four to fourteen years longer if they attend faith-based services compared to those who don’t.

Creating a sense of community in our lives could also include some of the following:

  • A few years ago a Dutch retirement home came up with a free housing program for students as part of a loneliness campaign. The students were offered free housing if they were to spend a minimum of 30 hours each month with the elderly people in the retirement home. This helped foster connectedness by encouraging the young and old to interact.
  • Another effective way of combatting loneliness might be through adopting a pet. Pet owners seem to be 36% less likely to be lonely compared to not having pets.
  • Giving back to the community can also be a very powerful way to combat loneliness.
  • Start paying more attention to how we raise our kids and how that could be contributing to our collective loneliness.
  • Set up rules around technology use, so it won’t impact the much-needed authentic human connection.

The Dalai Lama said that a sense of wholeness among us is a necessity to heal our societies and that we must move from ‘I” to ‘we.” This idea also ties in quite closely to the African view of Ubuntu which translates to ‘I am because you are, you are because I am’ and means that we find our humanity (including sound sleep, and physical and mental health) in each other.

A version of this article has been published by the Epoch Times.

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