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Feeling lonely can exact a devastating psychological toll, and a new study indicates that it may have negative physical consequences as well.

Recent research published in the journal SLEEP suggests that those who have one or more indicators of loneliness (as self-identified in a survey) are significantly more likely to suffer from fragmented sleep. This means they are regularly roused from deeper stages of sleep, but not necessarily fully awakened. Although that might not seem alarming in the short term, the potential long-term health effects could be considerable, says lead researcher Lianne Kurina, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago.

“Having more fragmented sleep could put people at risk for downstream health outcomes, such as metabolism changes or even type 2 diabetes,” Kurina says.

While the reasons behind the findings aren’t completely clear, Kurina believes it might be linked to common characteristics found in people who feel lonely. “We know that during waking hours, lonely people are more attuned to threats and feel more vulnerable,” she says. “It’s possible that during the nighttime, this increased vigilance manifests itself as lots of micro-awakenings and more restless sleep.”

Making lifestyle adjustments that promote better-quality sleep can help (read “Getting to Sleep”), but, says Kurina, those suffering from loneliness-related sleep disturbance can get even better and more sustainable results from directly addressing their emotional state and its root causes.

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