Loneliness and sleep problems have long plagued me, beginning at age 7 when my family moved twice within one year. Struggling to make new friends, my self-esteem plummeted, and the shyness I developed established a pattern of persistent loneliness. Empty days matched insomnia-filled nights, and little changed as I grew older. Working from home, I spent hours in bed from sheer loneliness, then wandered the house at night or arose to work at 3 a.m.
As it turns out, I am not so alone after all. University of Chicago research suggests that loneliness and sleeplessness might be intertwined. Among patients spending the same number of hours in bed, lonely people slept about 30 minutes fewer than non-lonely people. And lonely people in the study recalled more adverse childhood events and felt more helpless and threatened.
Experts are working to untangle the connection. One theory, says Mark W. Mahowald, MD, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, is that many people feel lonely because they're mildly or moderately depressed. "Depression is both genetically influenced and associated with insomnia," he says. "Plus, lonely people may have less structured lives and, lacking stimulation, go to bed without feeling tired. We all have a genetically determined sleep requirement -- whether eight hours nightly or only four, so it's logical that excess 'bed' time would mean extra sleepless hours."
"Genes affect a person's propensity for loneliness, too," says Louise Hawkley, PhD, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. "And for a person prone to feeling lonely, a difficult childhood event can trigger chronic loneliness that lasts a lifetime."
Loneliness might seem like a trivial health concern, but it packs a powerful punch. "Blood pressure is as much as 30 points higher," Hawkley says, "and loneliness may even affect obesity. Plus, chronically lonely people experience constant bodily wear and tear, accelerating the aging process." Studies show links between sleep deprivation and poor health, too, suggesting that the lonely and sleepless may be bombarded by health woes from both aspects of the problem.
The solution? "Do anything possible to assuage your loneliness," Hawkley says. "Finding just one person you connect with can make a monumental difference." For me, that person is my husband, and I've learned to reach for him whenever loneliness hits, even at 3 a.m.