Recently, my husband, John, flew to Utah to visit our son, Nick who is a 2nd-year student at the University of Utah. It was perfect timing, I was on a long stretch of clinic and urgent care shifts and our younger kids were at their dad's for the week. While I was plenty busy during the day with patient care, at night I had an empty house all to myself.
At first glance, this sounds like pure bliss. I am an introvert at heart. I crave solitude to let my mind wander, recharge myself and allow space for the creative part of my brain to have fun. After several nights of solitude however, I noticed a subtle ache…was it loneliness? Whatever it was that I felt, I DO know that the day everyone returned to the household, I felt uplifted. What every person, especially introverts like me need to know, is that while being alone can be good in small doses, the energy of being with other human beings is perhaps the most important health tonic of all.
People who come to see me in my Integrative Lifestyle Medicine clinic often have clear expectations. They want help with gut problems, they suffer from thyroid disease, they have unexplained fatigue and so much more. Most of them know that part of their treatment protocol will involve recommendations on diet, supplements, labs and more. What most don't realize, is that part of my screening involves a look at their relationships. During their visit, I perform an assessment on their relationships - both with themselves and others around them. I call this one of the sleeping giants in the room. You can have a perfect diet, work out every day and take your vitamins, but if you don't nurture your social relationships, you fall far short of optimum health.
The Science Behind Healthy Relationships
While we know that a good belly laugh with our "besties" feels fabulous, we are discovering that relationships and social isolation affect us on a physiological level beyond feeling good. Researchers have explored lifestyles and environments in the world's so-called Blue Zones, which have clusters of the world's oldest people. On the Nicoya peninsula of northwestern Costa Rica, for example, more people live past 100 than elsewhere in the world.
While diet and regular physical activity have some effect on their longevity, family life, social life, and spirituality (religion) also play an important role. However, none of these areas come close to the value of their relationships. The study showed that when people from the Nicoya Peninsula were isolated, they lost the benefit of longevity. Researchers were actually able to see this in the length of the study participant's telomeres.
Longer telomeres indicate longer lifespan
Telomeres, which are the caps on our chromosomes, shorten as we age. Shorter telomeres have been linked to increased mortality and shorter life spans. Nicoyans with robust relationships were found to have longer telomeres while Nicoyans without strong social contacts got the "short end of the stick." Their telomeres were shorter.
The evidence keeps growing. Relationships boost our immune system, decrease inflammation and help people recover from illness and injury. John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who is considered one of foremost experts on loneliness, continues to prove this. His studies find positive changes in inflammation and immunity on a cellular level in sociable people. From a personal health perspective, we can start to associate socialization with decreased disease and suffering.
Our current state of crisis - the loneliness crisis
I am not the first to suggest an epidemic of loneliness in our country. Depending on which study or article you read, the proof is there, a large percentage of our population is lonely and detached from social relationships. We are the most connected than we have every been with smartphones and social media platforms yet our real connections fall short. Our modern lifestyle pulls away from physical time spent with others in so many ways. We commute longer distances, we spend more time on screens, we have dual working families leaving less time for fostering family connections…the list goes on.
Relationships you need beyond partnerships
You may say "Doctor Wagner, I am single and I can't force a spouse to pop out of thin air!" Rest assured, the good news is, you don't have to be married or even in a relationship to enjoy the benefits of relationships and socialization. In fact, several studies point to solid friendships as having a stronger effect on health than romantic relationships and marriages.
A Call to Action - Get social!
If you can identify one or two people in your life as great friends, you're on the right track. Keep nurturing those relationships with lots of interaction, healthy boundaries and honesty. If you're feeling lonely and can't think of one or two people as great friends, read below and try one or all of these strategies!
Here are five ways to ignite some new connections:
- Follow your Passions - keep it simple and think about what you love to do. Then do that with others! Join a hiking club, take a local photography or cooking class. When you are doing what you love, your true nature will shine through and make you naturally attract like-minded people
- Volunteer. You'll discover people who share a common interest, making it easy to strike up a conversation!
- Join a church, Bible study or serve on a team in your place of worship. Faith can be a deeply personal, deeply held and cherished part of life. Connecting with others who share your beliefs is a strong basis for relationship.
- Join a gym, a club or take a class in something that looks interesting to you! Loneliness grows if you stay home alone. Push past the discomfort of trying something new.
- Reconnect with someone with whom you've lost touch. Don't discount great friends, even if you haven't talked in a while. We all go through different stages of life. You may be able to pick up where you left off! Some of my best experiences are with childhood friends.
It might be tempting to dismiss the case for relationships. If you're an introvert like me, the thought of making new friends or socializing might feel like torture. If you're looking at your life as a whole picture, you'd see that healthy relationships and loneliness prevention is just as important as diet, stress management, and physical activity.
Take an honest inventory of your relationships and your life. Who are your "people"? If you can't think of one good, solid friend, make it your goal this year to nurture a friendship. If there's an acquaintance that is a pleasure to be around, make a coffee or dinner date with them. Don't wait for them to call you. Be brave and make decisions with your goals in mind. You'll not only see loneliness start to fade away, but you just might find your best "you" on the other side.