Community and Immunity - By Dr. Joel Eisen
Loneliness isn’t good for our health. The scientific literature suggests a number of ways that it could be detrimental to our physical well-being – although we need social distancing now to protect ourselves. We’re challenged to find ways to prevent enforced isolation from turning into loneliness.
Dr. Steven Cole, a researcher at UCLA, found that myeloid cells, a type of immune cell, in lonely people were found in lower numbers. Myeloid cells are important in the production of interferon, which prevents a virus from replicating. So, lonely people might be more vulnerable to infection. The double whammy is that lonely people also have an abundance of a different type of myeloid cell that drives inflammation, which is also not a good thing.
Furthermore, he and his colleagues found that, with this inflammation, monocytes, another cell involved in inflammation, travel to the brain and promote anxiety, social withdrawal, and feelings of suspicion toward the outside world. These behaviours, in turn, lead to more avoidance and loneliness, which results in further inflammation, and so on.
Dr. Cole thus believes that the enforced isolation, brought about by the current pandemic, may create in many people a state of chronic loneliness that is difficult to escape from when things start returning to normal.
But there is a bright side! In experiments with his colleague, Sonja Lyubomirsky (a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside), he encouraged healthy people to direct simple acts of kindness toward others – things like running an errand for an elderly neighbour or helping a colleague with a computer problem. Those directed to show kindness to others on a weekly basis had precisely the opposite gene-expression activity to that previously seen in the lonely by Dr. Cole.
Asking lonely people to perform acts of chesed (not actually their scientific term!), for others significantly reduced the offerer’s feelings of loneliness, as well as the myeloid response that drives inflammation. In further studies, they found that acts of chesed, whether face-to-face or performed online (such as donating to tzedakah or writing a warm email), also had a beneficial impact on the immune response.
Something to ponder … and to act on during these times.
Joel N. Eisen M.D., F.R.C.P. (C)
Dr. Joel Eisen (brother-in-law to David Singer) is a co-president of Congregation Beth Haminyan in Toronto. He is a psychiatrist in Toronto and is a faculty member at the University of Toronto. He is grateful to his wife, Andria, for not letting his social isolation lead to loneliness.