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Don't Go It Alone: The Negative Impact of Social Isolation on Brain Health

As humans, we’re naturally social creatures. That means we rely on cooperation, rewarding relationships, and communities to live a happy and fulfilled life. Love and be loved, right?

Unfortunately, studies on the neurobiology of human social behavior are limited, but it’s generally agreed upon that the human brain is hardwired for social relationships. In fact, social interactions are the foundation to good mental and physical health.

But what happens when your social interactions are limited or absent altogether?

People who are socially isolated for long periods of time can experience extreme levels of loneliness that may lead to a risk of intellectual slumps, poor physical health, and even mental illness. Let’s discuss why this occurs and what can be done to fix it.

Social Isolation and Cognitive Health

Over the years, researchers observed how long-term social isolation affects brain function in environments where people are deprived of social interaction and sensory stimulation. The teams of scientists actually studied confined research teams, space crews, and even people who experience poor mental health.

Overall, people who experience long periods of time alone typically report feeling:

  • Confused
  • Depressed
  • Anxious
  • Irritable
  • Apathetic

 

Man sitting with head in hands

 

When this happens, some people even report changes in their personalities or an inability to string their thoughts together.

Plus, many studies have shown that a lack of social contacts and activities is associated with slower mental processes, including:

  • Forgetting important appointments
  • Losing their train of thought mid-conversation
  • Feeling overwhelmed when making decisions or understanding instructions
  • Getting lost when navigating familiar environments
  • Becoming impulsive or demonstrating poor judgment
What’s more? Social isolation can also pose many serious health risks, like:
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease or failure
  • Stroke
  • Premature death
In fact, for researchers isolated in the Antarctic research station—Neumayer III—the effects of isolation were just as stark as their tundra surroundings. A study conducted a few years ago observed the physiology of nine crew members who were isolated from the rest of the world for 14 months.


During the stay, they experienced sub-freezing temperatures and little to no natural light. Following the long expedition, it was found that the crew members exhibited:

  • Worsened spatial awareness and attention spans
  • Reduced blood levels of BDNF, a protein that helps to regulate stress and memory
  • Reduced brain volumes (specifically in the dentate gyrus, a region that plays a critical role in memory and learning)
But, it’s not just scientists and explorers who experience extreme levels of social isolation.


Social isolation occurs quite regularly within elderly, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ populations, too. People who have mental illnesses that prevent social interaction can also spend long periods of time alone. These include:

  • Autism
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder

Your Brain on Loneliness

 

Person standing in a room shaped like person's head

 

 

When separated from friends and family for a lengthy period of time—whether you’re working remotely in a studio apartment or living in a new city where you don’t have a large social network—your brain can physically change.

These changes may affect key personality traits such as how you get along with others, your preference to be around others, and your ability to follow social norms.

Actually, there are three main behavior-affecting parts of your brain that can be altered by loneliness! These include:

  • Prefrontal cortex – In some studies, the prefrontal cortex of people who experienced prolonged loneliness was found to be smaller in size. This area of the brain largely influences decision-making and social behavior. But, it’s also responsible for impulse control and managing emotional reactions, meaning those who are chronically lonely may have trouble regulating or controlling their feelings. The prefrontal cortex also plays a large role in personality development—as in making decisions that align with certain motives or value systems.
  • Hippocampus – Loneliness may also decrease the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that’s responsible for your learning and memory. The hippocampus also regulates stress hormones, which may increase when you’re in isolation (which was noticed in some animal studies).
  • Amygdala – The main job of your brain’s amygdala is to balance your emotions. Researchers have found a link between the volume of your amygdala and the size of your social network—the smaller the network, the smaller the amygdala. Another study also found that people with smaller amygdalas tend to be more aggressive.

The Nuance of Solitude and Connection

Now, loneliness can greatly impact your mental health in a negative way. But,the extent of the impact largely depends on how you feel about your solitude—in other words, someone who’s physically isolated may not feel emotionally isolated.

Really, social isolation is objective (an observable lack of contact with others), while loneliness is subjective (the emotional reaction one experiences when they believe that they have no friends, companionship, or support).

In fact, studies in the Netherlands and the UK show that loneliness is a main indicator of dementia, not social isolation itself. That’s why not everyone with a small or limited social network feels lonely.

To some, solitude may be a reprieve to reflect and recharge. To others, it’s a form of suffering.

So, an introverted person who only sees friends or family once a month may have fewer feelings of negativity around their loneliness, especially if they feel like their connection needs are being met.

Yet, an extroverted person who sees their loved ones once a week may feel more lonely. That’s because they often experience an inconsistency between their current situation and their desired situation. These people may think that their needs for connection, companionship, or intimacy are not being fulfilled. Sadly, this can have negative effects on their mental health.

At the end of the day, no matter your love or hate for solitude, it’s difficult to avoid the negative effects of long-term social isolation.


Protecting Your Brain Health Amid Social Isolation

 

Group of people talking

 

If you ever find yourself physically or emotionally isolated from your friends or family, it’s important to take action to ease any feelings of negativity and fulfill your needs for companionship. We encourage you to consider:

  • Speaking to a doctor – If you find yourself exhibiting physical symptoms of loneliness—like heart issues or memory loss—talking to your doctor may be a step in the right direction. Describing your symptoms to a trusted medical professional can help you identify the causes and find solutions to any physical illnesses you may be experiencing.
  • Seeking talk therapy – For people who are experiencing emotional or mental symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or irritability, consider speaking to a therapist or counselor about your experience. Therapy provides you with an outlet to express yourself and an opportunity to connect with someone else in a safe and supportive space.
  • Reaching out to loved ones over the phone or video – If you’re physically isolated from friends and family, make an effort to connect to them over the phone or video call. Connecting with loved ones can reduce stress, stimulate your brain, and slow any signs of memory loss.
  • Nourishing your brain – When feeling low, it’s beneficial to feed your brain and body B vitamins, amino acids like 5-HTP, and omega-3 fats like those found in Smarter Omega 3. Omega-3 fats are essential fats that can boost your mood and support your brain, heart, and eye health.

    Support Your Brain with Smarter Nutrition

    Being socially isolated from friends and family can be difficult for everyone. Not only does loneliness cause feelings of depression and anxiety, but it also negatively impacts your brain and heart health.


    Luckily, we have some good news!

    There are many approaches you can take in your daily life to improve your mental health and curb feelings of loneliness. When you feel the caves of loneliness creeping in, remember that you’re not alone—there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and that every step (no matter how small) is incredible progress.

    Here at Smarter Nutrition, you can use our mood-boosting supplements to support your quest toward better mental health.

    All this to say, if this article resonates—we’re rooting for you.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     


    Sources:

    The Scientist. How Social Isolation Affects the Brain. https://www.the-scientist.com/features/how-social-isolation-affects-the-brain-67701

    Dana. In Sync: How Humans are Hard-Wired for Social Relationships. https://dana.org/article/in-sync-how-humans-are-hard-wired-for-social-relationships/

    U.S. National Library of Medicine. The Neurobiology of Human Social Behavior: An Important But Neglected Topic. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2527715/

    Psychology Today. How Social Isolation and Loneliness Impact Brain Function. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/biohack-your-brain/202102/how-social-isolation-and-loneliness-impact-brain-function

    National Library of Medicine. Social Isolation and Loneliness: Relationships with cognitive function during 4 years of follow-up in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23362501/

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html

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