Yes, being sleepy all the time might make you grumpy. But new research suggests the social effects of sleep deprivation go way beyond just a pouty attitude in the morning: Losing sleep is actually making you feel lonely—and might even be quietly pushing people away from you.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, examined how sleep loss affects social interaction and found a two-way relationship: Sleep deprivation activates a brain circuit that perceives human threats and shuts down a part that promotes engagement with others. Making matters worse, even well-rested folks were more alienated by sleep-deprived people and also felt lonelier just from watching them. In other words, sleeplessness-induced loneliness might actually be contagious.
The study, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, looked at brain scans of 18 participants as they watched videos of people walking toward them. Given the opportunity to stop the approaching people with the push of a button, participants who hadn’t slept the previous night kept people at a greater distance from them—between 18 and 60 percent farther than they did when they’d gotten a full night’s rest. As people approached the sleep-deprived participants, their brains showed increased activity in their “near space network,” which lights up when threatened, while the circuit that encourages social interaction appeared impaired.
The researchers also asked a separate group of over 1,000 participants to view videos of people having normal conversations and asked two questions: how much they’d like to socialize with the conversants and how lonely they currently felt. Shockingly, the observers consistently rated sleep-deprived people as being less exciting to talk to and also rated themselves as feeling more socially isolated after watching them.
“The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact. In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss,” one of the lead study authors said in a news release. “That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness.”
Indeed, the findings suggest two of our culture’s separate but equally pressing health epidemics are actually coalescing: sleep loss and loneliness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found one in three Americans don’t get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night, and other reports have found some 68 percent have struggled with getting enough shut-eye at least once a week. The consequences of sleep deprivation are, of course, wide-ranging, spanning from impaired cognition to increased risk of cancer and diabetes. Meanwhile, a 2018 study found nearly half of all Americans feel left out and feel lonely “sometimes or always,” and research has linked loneliness to everything from depression to elevated blood pressure to risk of early death. Adding all those effects together makes for one ugly equation.
The good news, the study explains, is that just one night of sleep can bump up your sociability, making you more “outgoing,” “confident,” and generally more likable to others. Win-win!
Prioritizing your sleep clearly goes beyond just physically feeling better the next day—your emotional health and social relationships also get a crucial boost. So if you’re struggling to get the Zs you need most nights, try some of our simple hacks for better sleep—things like unplugging your electronics before bed and rescheduling your meditation sessions for earlier in the day. Small adjustments to your daily routine can make a huge difference. And hey, your friends will probably appreciate it a lot the next morning.