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March 20, 2020
by Tina Arnoldi

Reducing Loneliness By Treating Inflammation

March 20, 2020 07:51 by Tina Arnoldi  [About the Author]

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

In a recent Cigna survey, almost half of the respondents reported feeling lonely “always” or “sometimes”. One hypothesis drawn from the research is that these feelings of loneliness are generated partly by inflammation and previous research indicates inflammation impacts our thinking and behaviors.  

Therapist Jacob Kountz researches challenges and barriers that impede people from seeking out professional mental health services. He shared his conversations with physical therapists who are often contacted to treat chronic pain from inflammation. “One conversation led to why so many with inflammation and chronic pain are referred to mental health professionals,” said Kountz. “Physical therapists usually work with clients for about three months, if needed. If clients are still experiencing pain they are then referred to pain management doctors and mental health therapists. Why? Because dozens of peer-reviewed research suggests that chronic pain can be reduced through psychotherapy.”

Loneliness can impact stress levels which influence inflammation and ongoing pain throughout the body. This is why he believes a mental health therapist can be a surprising answer to the epidemic of inflammation. Kountz added, “Many of my clients who experience chronic pain scratch their head at the idea of therapy helping with their physical difficulties. As it turns out, there are many techniques that can be practiced to decrease stress leading to pain reduction. Also, there are processes happening in tandem while clients are learning these techniques. One is the process of defeating loneliness by building a therapeutic alliance with a professional.”

"Having one person in your life can do miracles for your physical and mental health," said Kountz. For some, this does start with a relationship with a trusted therapist. Kountz says “this has the potential to decrease loneliness as clients work with mental health professionals who not only assist with chronic pain, but also help clients decrease stress, increase good sleep, practice developing ongoing relationships and getting clients reconnected with others in their community to battle loneliness.”

Dr Dilraj Kalsi, MD also recognizes the potential relationship between loneliness and inflammation. “Since it is associated with high blood pressure, cognitive decline and suicide, it is likely that social isolation contributes in some way to the underlying physiological mechanisms of these diseases. The research is starting to corroborate this theory, with increases in inflammatory mediators and genes linked to loneliness.”

But it’s not a clear-cut relationship. Kalsi explains, “As far as genes and mediators go, it is important to remember that epigenetics is a phenomenon whereby the extent to which a gene is expressed is influenced by your environment. It is therefore somewhat chicken and egg as to whether inflammation causes or is caused by loneliness. It is certainly not commonplace to measure inflammation levels on test panels when considering loneliness as things stand. Tests are most useful when they alter your treatment plan and this is not likely the case with loneliness. The key is to bear it in mind as an important health factor in all consultations.”

Based on what we do know about long-term, low-level inflammation as a contributor to many chronic diseases, Kalsi does see the possibilities of using anti-inflammatory approaches to uproot loneliness. He points to Dr Daniel Amen, who created a whole food plan to target depression by optimising brain function. “We can apply the same logic to loneliness,” said Kalsi. “As with any lifestyle intervention though, it is the overall picture that matters most. When tackling loneliness, it is worth addressing nutrition, exercise and sleep, but you would not do that independently of trying to increase social interaction. The more individualised the lifestyle plan, the more likely it will have an impact and so it is important to move toward lifestyle changes that work for you.”

About the Author

Tina Arnoldi

Tina Arnoldi, MA is a business consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. She has reviewed books for PsychCentral and has a portfolio on Contently. You can learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com


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