Adults who go to bed lonely get stress hormone boost next morning

October 30, 2006

EVANSTON, Ill. -- A new study that takes a rare look at the physiological, social and emotional dynamics of day-to-day experiences in real-life settings shows that when older adults go to bed lonely, sad or overwhelmed, they have elevated levels of cortisol shortly after waking the next morning.

Elevated levels of cortisol -- a stress hormone linked to depression, obesity and other health problems when chronic -- actually cue the body on a day-to-day basis that it is time to rev up to deal with loneliness and other negative experiences, according to Northwestern University's Emma K. Adam, the lead investigator of the study.

The study, "Day-to-day experience-cortisol dynamics," will be published online the week of Oct. 30 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"You've gone to bed with loneliness, sadness, feelings of being overwhelmed, then along comes a boost of hormones in the morning to give you the energy you need to meet the demands of the day," said Adam, assistant professor of education and social policy and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

The morning cortisol boost could help adults who went to bed with troubled or overwhelming feelings go out in the world the next day and have the types of positive social experiences that help regulate hormone levels, she said.

Adam also is a faculty fellow at C2S: The Center on Social Disparities and Health. C2S is a new center within the Institute for Policy Research that is reaching across Northwestern's two campuses and a number of social, life and biomedical disciplines to offer a 21st century look at how biological, social and cultural dynamics intersect and affect health throughout the life span.

Cortisol is often characterized as a negative hormone because of evidence, mostly in animal models, that long-term elevations could be potentially harmful to physical health. But in the short term the stress hormone is adaptive and helpful, according to Adam.

"Cortisol helps us respond to stressful experiences and do something about them," she said. "It is necessary for survival -- fluctuations in this hormone assist us in meeting the changing demands we face in our daily lives."

The first of its type, the study shows that it is not just on average that people who have more negative emotions have higher levels of cortisol. Rather, with its detailed and intricate methodology, the study shows a sensitive day-to-day dance between experience and cortisol. Experience influences stress hormones, and stress hormones influence experience, the study shows.

"Cortisol responds to and interacts with our daily experiences in subtle and important ways," Adam concluded.

Cortisol levels are generally high immediately upon waking, increase in the first 30 minutes after waking and then decline to low values at bedtime.

Adam, with her colleagues John T. Cacioppo and Louise C. Hawkley at the University of Chicago, and Brigitte M. Kudielka from the University of Trier, Germany, showed that changes in this pattern from one day to the next are closely interwoven with changes in our daily experiences.

The study, based on data from the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study (CHASRS) at the University of Chicago includes 156 older adults living in Cook County who were born between 1935 and 1952 and represent a range of socioeconomic classes. Their cortisol levels were measured from small samples of saliva provided three times a day for three consecutive days. Study participants reported their feelings each night in a diary, and researchers looked at whether cortisol levels on a particular day were predicted by experiences the day before or were predictive of experiences that same day.

In addition to noting that loneliness the night before predicted higher cortisol the next morning, Adam and colleagues found that people who experience anger throughout the day have higher bedtime levels of cortisol and flatter overall levels of the stress hormone, typically considered a risk factor for disorder. "High levels of cortisol in the evening are a kind of biological signature of a bad day," Adam noted.

The study also provided evidence that, in addition to simply being at the mercy of your daily experiences, cortisol also plays a role in influencing them. Individuals with lower levels of cortisol in the morning experienced greater fatigue during the day, a result with potential implications for understanding chronic fatigue.

In all of her work, Adam is interested in how people's changing social environments get under the skin to influence their biology and health. "Stress systems are designed to translate social experience into biological action," she said. "They are designed to be a conduit from the outside world to our internal worlds so that we can better respond to our social context. The overarching question of my studies of these systems in a variety of contexts is whether overuse of these systems plays a role in disease outcomes."
-end-


Northwestern University

Related Loneliness Articles from Brightsurf:

Loneliness in youth could impact mental health over the long term
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated widespread social isolation, affecting all ages of global society.

A regular dose of nature may improve mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
A study published in Ecological Applications suggests that nature around one's home may help mitigate some of the negative mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Loneliness in Parkinson's disease may lead to worsening of symptoms
Research from UCLA scientists and colleagues from other institutions finds that people with Parkinson's disease who lack meaningful social interactions may be at an increased risk for severe symptoms related to the disease.

'Alarming' COVID-19 study shows 80% of respondents report significant symptoms of depression
A new national survey, looking at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young US adults' loneliness, reveals ''significant depressive symptoms'' in 80% of participants.

Study: exercise classes reduce loneliness, social isolation in seniors
Seniors who joined group exercise classes experienced decreased loneliness and social isolation, according to a new Cedars-Sinai study conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Study: loneliness highest in the 20s and lowest in the 60s
Seeking to develop effective interventions, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine examined the psychological and environmental factors that lead to patterns of loneliness in different age groups.

Loneliness a leading cause of depression in older adults
Loneliness is responsible for 18% of depression among people over 50 in England, according to a new study led by UCL researchers published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Social distancing is increasing loneliness in older adults
Social distancing introduced in response to COVID-19 is increasing feelings of loneliness in Scotland's older population and impacting their wellbeing, according to a new University of Stirling study.

From San Diego to Italy, study suggests wisdom can protect against loneliness
Researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine and University of Rome La Sapienza examined middle-aged and older adults in San Diego and Cilento, Italy and found loneliness and wisdom had a strong negative correlation.

Pets linked to maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness during lockdown, new research shows
Sharing a home with a pet appeared to act as a buffer against psychological stress during lockdown, a new survey shows.

Read More: Loneliness News and Loneliness Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.