Does Loneliness Lead to Unhealthy Habits?

Humans are social creatures; without other people, we can't survive or thrive. Our social nature has shaped human evolution, and the same holds true in our everyday lives. Essentially, social relationships determine our health and wellness—even if we don't realize it.

Yet, as we age, our social interactions tend to decline. Maybe the kids moved away or it's time to retire. Perhaps you moved to a new city, have limited mobility or lost your job. These are just a few circumstances that can contribute to social isolation, a common problem that affects middle-aged and older folks, which can eventually lead to loneliness.

Loneliness isn't just being physically alone, though. BMC Psychiatry defines loneliness as the negative feelings related to having less social connections than desired, making it an outcome of social isolation.

Obviously, that doesn't mean everyone needs a million friends. Some people prefer to be alone; it's the M.O. of many introverts. But even people who like to fly solo have the capacity to be socially fulfilled—their needs may just look different than extroverted folks. At the same time, it's possible to feel lonely in a crowd.

Loneliness comes down to the social support that's achieved versus desired. Naturally, both will look different for each person, but it's the discrepancy between them that matters. As that void grows, so does the likelihood of feeling lonely.

Why Are Social Relationships Important?

Loneliness isn't an isolated experience. As an aspect of social health, it impacts the bigger picture: Overall well-being.

"Social, mental and physical health are all intimately tied together, [and they] affect the outcomes of the others," explains Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., the author of "52-Week Meal Planner" and a culinary nutrition expert based in New York. Health, after all, is a multi-faceted concept.

Specifically, healthy relationships offer emotional support to take care of ourselves, according to Sally Chung, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at Oceanside Psychological Services in Seattle. This includes everything from finishing a workout to handling a problem. But without that support, we may respond to situations in unhealthy ways.

Loneliness is complex. However, by learning how it affects overall health, you can recognize the value of social support. From there, you'll gain the insight to manage loneliness in a way that works for you.

4 Ways Loneliness Influences Health

1. Eating Habits

Food and community go hand in hand. Think about it: Culture, celebrations and catching up with old friends often involve eating, whether it's cake, shared appetizers or a homemade dinner. But without a sense of community, a person's relationship with food can be thrown for a loop.

"Someone who is lonely is presumably eating most of their meals alone," says Julie Lee, R.D., a dietitian and certified health coach based in New York. "[It can be difficult] to find motivation to prepare food, and, [as a result], lonely people are more likely to rely on convenience or take-out foods." Lee adds that loneliness can also make it hard to eat, as people who are lonely are more likely to skip meals, lose their appetite and consistently fail to meet their body's needs.<pagebreak>

Feeling isolated can also influence the kinds of food you prefer. A 2018 study in Annals of Behavioral Medicine examined how social isolation affects eating habits. Researchers collected data from 3,392 men and women over 52 years old. At a 10-year follow-up, they discovered that socially isolated adults are more likely to eat fewer than five servings of fruits and veggies each day. Another 2014 study in PLoS One found that loneliness is linked to a greater intake of sugary drinks. These beverages, such as soda and fruit juice, are the top sources of added sugars and have also been linked to a higher risk of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
2. Poor Lifestyle Choices

Loneliness influences other lifestyle habits, too. "Social health is incredibly important to our ability to succeed in other areas of life," Dr. Chung explains. "[However], feeling lonely can impact the way you see yourself and your value to society." She goes on to add that feeling like no one cares about you can make it difficult to care about yourself and your health. This can dampen the motivation to practice self-care habits like personal hygiene, getting adequate sleep and self-compassion. Furthermore, social isolation is also a major risk factor in limiting regular engagement in physical activity while increasing the chances of a person taking up smoking.

Put simply, without emotional support, we're less likely to take care of ourselves. This fact also emphasizes the power of support groups, accountability partners and therapy.  

3. Stress

Loneliness and stress have an especially strong relationship. "Social isolation can cause stress, and stress can lead to social isolation," explains Levinson. Essentially, as one increases, so does the other.

To start, loneliness can be a source of stress in and of itself, according to Dr. Chung. "As human beings, we are built [to have] connections [with] others," she says. "[But] without relationships to ground and bolster us, we cannot thrive." In turn, stress has room to flourish.

But it works the other way around, too. "Stress strains relationships, causing you to feel lonely and isolated even when you are in a relationship with people," Dr. Chung explains. "if you don't have good stress management skills, you run the risk of pushing others away with cranky moods and short tempers."

Biologically, stress also opens the door for inflammation, a major culprit of chronic disease. In fact, according to a 2017 article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 75 to 90 percent of human diseases are stimulated by stress. This includes diseases associated with early death, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.<pagebreak>

Stress also speeds up aging. In a 2015 study by Translational Psychiatry, researchers examined how chronic stress affects klotho, a hormone that regulates the aging process and is responsible for supporting body and brain health. The conclusion? As stress progresses, klotho decreases, negatively affecting one's psychosocial health. 

Moreover, loneliness makes it hard to cope with stress. We often use social interaction as stress relief, but without social support, there isn't a shoulder to lean on.

4. Unhealthy Weight

Loneliness can intensify the above factors, ultimately paving the way for unwanted weight gain or loss.

For instance, loneliness may disrupt appetite control through stress. A 2014 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that stress increases ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and decreases leptin (the satiety hormone). In turn, it can be hard to tell when you're actually full, leading to binge eating or unhealthy portion sizes.

Emotional eating also plays a role. "[This is] a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions such as sadness, anger, loneliness and boredom," says Levinson. "Often, people gravitate toward highly palatable foods high in sugar, fat and simple carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain." For some, emotional eating can spark a poor appetite, leading to unhealthy weight loss.

The Significance of Social Support

As you can see, loneliness can have quite the impact on overall wellbeing.

This is where social support comes in. According to Dr. Chung, creating meaningful social relationships makes space for the emotional accountability and inspiration needed to care for ourselves. It also pumps the brakes on negative health behaviors.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to make friends later in life, so Dr. Chung suggests getting involved in a community. "Whether it's a book club or place of worship, being connected to something opens up the possibilities of meeting people who have similar values [as] you."

Remember, social support looks different for everyone. Acknowledge the type of connections that you want and need, whether you're a social butterfly or a cautious introvert. This way, you can develop a support system in a way that is best for your lifestyle and level of comfort.

If you have yet to find authentic relationships, don't fret. Dr. Chung reminds us that new connections need nurturing and patience to grow – just like our health.