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Sleep Disorders

Updated 30 August 2018

Can sleep deprivation make you more lonely?

It only takes one sleepless night to jeopardize social interactions and make people feel lonely, a new study shows.

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Sleep problems can play havoc with your social life, a new study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests.

A series of experiments revealed sleep-deprived people feel lonelier and less eager to engage with others. That, in turn, makes others less likely to want to socialise with the sleep-deprived, researchers said.

A global loneliness epidemic

The researchers also found that well-rested people feel lonely after spending just a short time with a sleep-deprived person, which suggests that social isolation caused by sleep problems may be contagious, according to the investigators at the University of California, Berkeley.

These findings are the first to show a two-way link between poor sleep and social isolation, offering new insight into what the researchers called a global loneliness epidemic.

"We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers," study senior author Matthew Walker said in a university news release. He is a professor of neuroscience and psychology.

Brain scans of sleep-deprived people watching videos of strangers walking toward them showed heightened activity in networks typically activated when people feel their personal space is being invaded, the researchers found. Sleep deprivation also reduced activity in brain regions that normally encourage social engagement, the findings showed.

"The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact. In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss," Walker explained.

Becoming a social turn-off

"That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness," he added.

Surveys suggest that nearly half of Americans feel lonely or left out. And loneliness increases the risk of early death by more than 45%, double the risk associated with obesity, research shows.

According to study lead author Eti Ben-Simon, "It's perhaps no coincidence that the past few decades have seen a marked increase in loneliness and an equally dramatic decrease in sleep duration." She is a postdoctoral fellow in Walker's Center for Human Sleep Science.

"Without sufficient sleep, we become a social turn-off, and loneliness soon kicks in," Ben-Simon said. The study did offer a reason for optimism: A good night's sleep makes a rapid difference.

Walker said that "just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you".

 

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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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