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Study shows connection between loneliness and interrupted sleep.

Loneliness interrupts sleep

by Mike DiFerdinando
Nov 02, 2011

A broken heart or any other cause of loneliness may disrupt a good night's sleep and could impair physical and mental health.

A new study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that loneliness breaks up a normal night's sleep and that compromised sleep may be one pathway that allows loneliness to adversely affect our health.

“We may all be dependent on feeling secure in our social environment in order to sleep soundly,” said lead researcher Lianne Kurina with the Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago.

According to the study, loneliness does not appear to change the total hours of rest, but people awaken more often. Lonely individuals are more likely to wake during sleep because the anxiety of being alone forces their brains to work harder throughout the day, said Kurina.

“It may very well be a stress factor,” said Phyllis Zee, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern University. “If you feel lonely, that itself could be a stress. It’s almost like a threat where you can’t feel safe.”

The study examined the degree of loneliness reported by a close-knit population of 95 adults in rural South Dakota with measurements of their sleep cycles. To measure the quality of sleep, study volunteers wore wristbands that measured their activity and level of restlessness.

None of the individuals were socially isolated, but their perceptions of loneliness varied. Those with higher loneliness scores showed significantly higher levels of fragmented sleep. The total amount of rest and the degree of daytime sleepiness were not impacted, however, according to the study.

Nearly half of the participants indicated they weren't lonely. However, among the remaining half, researchers noticed a trend between increasing feelings of loneliness and social isolation and more fitful sleep.

Lack of sleep, particularly deep sleep, can cause a number of other health problems such as changes in blood pressure and blood sugar,  Zee said.

“Mental health is essential for physical health,” she said. “Poor sleep can lead to poor mental health .”

The findings, which appear in this week’s issue of the journal “Sleep,“ reinforce a 2002 study published by the American Psychological Society that compared the loneliness reported by college students with their measured quality of sleep. That study found that the lonelier the students felt, the more their sleep was interrupted during the night.

The similarities among the studies help point out that loneliness and social isolation are two distinct concepts, Kurina said. 

Loneliness may be caused by the actual social isolation and separation from others. But the study reflects how perceived social isolation or feelings of being an outcast - the often-painful discrepancy between a person's desired and actual social relationships - can affect our health.

“It’s an interesting look at how our psychological health can effect our physical well being,” Kurina said.