Loneliness Hurts At The Cellular Level

kali's picture

When I meet with a patient for the first time, I always begin with a short explanation of what the system of naturopathic medicine believes to be the key to overall health and vitality – a healthy cellular environment. The health of all of the cells in the body depends, in large part, on the health of the environment in which those cells are living, I’ll say. It’s like a goldfish in a goldfish bowl – if there’s something out of balance in the water, it has a huge impact on the health of the fish. We can similarly affect human cellular health by addressing what’s out of balance in the cellular environment. While some of these imbalances are relatively easy to identify – symptoms of a food sensitivity reaction, for example – others, especially those that involve the mental/emotional human aspect, are more nuanced

I recently read an article that spoke to the impact of our mental/emotional situation on our cellular health and was again reminded of this important link:

Strong relationships and a sense of belonging are keys to human health.


While most practitioners remember to ask about bowel movements and headaches, our social connections and relationships often get overlooked. This new study reminds us to give relationships and social connections weight – as much weight as the food we eat, the exercise we do, the pain we experience, and the quality of sleep we get. The article discussed the negative cellular impact of the experience of loneliness.

Lots of research has shown that isolation is bad for us. In 2015, a large review article of 70 studies showed that loneliness increases blood pressure and risk of heart disease. The headlines that caught attention were those heralding the biggest finding from the review: that loneliness increases mortality (risk of death) by 26 percent. 

Researchers are just now beginning to understand why this may be true, and it has to do with the cellular environment.

Two very key changes in the cellular environment take place when one experience chronic loneliness:

1. a chronic inflammatory response is triggered

Genes that code for an inflammatory response by the immune system are turned on to a higher degree in people who are experiencing loneliness when compared to those who are not. Chronic, systemic inflammation fuels disease processes in many different degenerative conditions: atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes all have inflammatory components. Inflammation increases pain, and interferes with proper hormonal balance. It also results in higher levels of cell-harming oxidative stress.

2. the defense against infections is reduced

When chronic loneliness occurs, genes that control production of proteins called type-1 interferons are down-regulated or suppressed. Type-1 interferons direct the immune system to kill viruses, making lonely people much more susceptible to infections.

These responses to isolation - an increased risk of chronic disease, and a decreased ability to ward off infections - are likely what lead to the increase in mortality seen in the review study. 

Further, research into how loneliness feels reveals we experience loneliness in much the same way that we experience physical pain. In research experiments using brain scans, increased activity in two areas of the brain associated with physical pain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula) are activated when test subjects feel lonely. And when these test subjects were given over-the-counter pain meds (acetaminophen), they reported fewer hurt feelings over the course of each day.

“We think this is why people talk about rejection as literally hurting – because the brain processes emotional pain and physical pain in similar ways,” says researcher Naomi Eisenberger.

Why is this important?

It’s important because too often as a society, we dismiss mental/emotional angst. Fortunately, both Naturopathic and Chinese systems of medicine make no distinction between the mind and the body - they are intricately connected, one and the same. When you hurt emotionally, your cells feel it.

I’m incredibly interested in helping my patients optimize cellular health. When our cells are functioning well, we feel vital. We sleep well, have energy to tackle the day, are motivated and inspired, and our bodies do what they were biologically designed to do. Let this be just another reminder to not forget what a massive impact the mental/emotional state has on our cells.

In health,

Dr. Kali MacIsaac HBSc, ND

loneliness hurts at the cellular level