Social Isolation and Stress Management

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

September 28, 2020

Social Isolation and Stress Management
Unlike any other time in recent history because of COVID-19, social isolation is the new normal. Months of shut down in various forms and ongoing social isolation has taken a toll on so many. From kids not able to hang out with friends to the elderly in nursing homes with very tight restrictions on visitation and everything in between, social isolation is real. No longer can you shake hands or give someone a hug in an exchange of human touch and connection. Face coverings make it a challenge to see facial expressions. Daily reports in the media with governing health officials continue with orders to maintain social isolation and distance.

However, social isolation brings its own stress. Knowing how to mentally handle the challenge of isolation is one aspect. Another challenge is to manage the underlying physical stress that it can silently cause.

Overwhelm, worry, anxiety, and depression can readily manifest or worsen with social isolation and loneliness. Inside your body, social isolation stress also manifests itself in various ways with inflammation and oxidative stress. It is real. This information is meant to help you understand the importance of nutritional fortification to withstand these stressors of today. Use this information to help fortify your body and mind along with other tools and skills to stay connected with others and manage the effects of social isolation. The more nutritionally replenished you are, the easier it becomes for your body and mind to buffer against stress.

Social Isolation Stress Effects

Research findings on social isolation and loneliness confirm what you already suspect. Loneliness and isolation increase your focus on more negative things which leads to worry, anxiety, depression, rejection, and perceived or real threats. Social isolation negatively affects your cognitive performance, causing increased difficulty and slower mental performance.

In recent months, there have been more studies published on the effects of social isolation. Epidemiological studies that evaluate patterns of health and disease show that “loneliness and social isolation increase mortality risk as much as smoking or alcohol consumption and more than physical inactivity or obesity”. Social isolation stress increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and affects heart rate and rhythm dysfunction.

Oxidative Stress Concerns

Loneliness and social isolation can act like a threat to your self. It activates the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic or fight-flight part of your autonomic nervous system. The effect is high levels of stress hormones, i.e. cortisol and catecholamines like adrenaline that cause increased oxidative stress.

The fight-flight response is meant to be short-term, i.e. seconds or a few minutes, such as threat from a wild animal that resolves quickly. Long-term chronic fight-flight stress experienced in many modern-day situations creates dysregulation and chaos in your body. Unfortunately, one of today’s stressors is chronic social isolation with persistent high stress hormone levels that disrupt health and natural body circadian rhythms over time.

Social Isolation Causes Proinflammatory Stress

A study published July 2020 discussed the impact of social isolation and oxidative stress. Findings show that the stress of social isolation creates oxidative, pro-inflammatory stress that causes cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis and blood vessel stress. It leads to dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, a proinflammatory immune response, and even contributes to mitochondrial injury and dysfunction.

Social isolation causes HPA axis over-activation that involves the brain, adrenal glands, thyroid, and pancreas. Over time, it leads to higher levels of oxidative stress and inflammation that contributes to heart disease and type II diabetes. It can switch on pro-inflammatory genes which add further risk for heart disease, neurodegeneration, diabetes, cancer and other disorders.

Impaired Immune Function

Other findings show that social isolation and loneliness stress impairs immune system function and ability to fight germs. Reduction in natural killer cell activity and susceptibility to higher viral levels or viral reactivation has been shown to occur.

Coping Skills: How to Manage the Stress Response

There are several ways to help take care of yourself to reduce the effects of stress hormones. Here are some things to consider.


Take a moment to evaluate your thoughts and check in with your body to see how you are doing. If your breath is short and shallow, stop and take some long, deep belly breaths. This is the fastest way to change your autonomic nervous system. Short, shallow breaths from your upper chest reflect activation of your sympathetic or fight-flight nervous system. When your breath comes from your belly or diaphragm, it activates the parasympathetic or rest/repair/digest autonomic nervous system. This helps de-escalate stress hormone release.

If your neck and shoulders are tight and full of knots, do some gentle stretches with belly breathing. If your posture is hunched over from sitting at desk, texting, or working on some other device or activity that causes you to lean forward and bend your head down, take a break and do some stretches. Gentle stretching helps engages the parasympathatic nervous system and supports blood flow to your internal organs and brain. Connect with others online or outside with friends to stretch and exercise together.

Outdoor Activity and Forest Bathing

Exercise and physical activity is vital. If you are able to exercise or simply be outdoors that is even better. Numerous studies demonstrate the benefits of outdoor activity or just being outside. Forest bathing has been shown to create powerful stress reduction effects. Forest bathing refers to taking long mindful walks in the forest or under the canopy of trees.

Natural Daylight

Make sure you get natural sunlight/daylight first thing in the morning and at mid-day. Open the curtains and blinds in your home. Natural daylight, even if the weather is cloudy, sends signals necessary for your natural circadian wake/sleep-day/night rhythm. These signals are received by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) which is your brain’s master clock found in the hypothalamus. This positively affects the HPA axis, autonomic nervous system, and internal cellular clocks related to your circadian biorhythms, neurotransmitters and melatonin.


Make sure you eat regular meals with quality food. It is easy to get in the habit of skipping meals because you don’t feel like cooking or eating with isolation and loneliness. Malnutrition worsens the sense of isolation and loneliness.

Eat breakfast before 10:00 AM or within 2 hours after awakening. It helps set your internal body clocks with numerous things linked with energy, metabolism, gut health, hormones and detoxification. Focus on three meals per day. If you have a dessert or treat, have it with a meal.

Junk Food Challenge

Another common challenge with social isolation is the temptation of sweets or junk food to get that momentary burst of pleasure. That brief taste of satisfaction results in a fast sugar and insulin high only to be followed by a blood sugar crash. That bad habit creates more oxidative stress and further depletes nutrients. Quality protein, complex carbohydrates, and good fats are essential to helping tame the urges. Chromium, vanadium, Inula racemosa, Gymnema sylvestre, B vitamins, magnesium, and especially glutamine can provide additional supplemental aid against sugar and junk food cravings.

Your mental perspective plays enormous roles on HPA stress hormone activation and release. Find ways to practice gratitude and think about the blessings in your life. Find ways to share them and help someone else even with social distancing. The act of giving helps break the cycle of loneliness and isolation. Is your (perspective) glass half-full or half-empty?

Immune Fortification and HPA Stress-Mood Management

Consider Immune Plus or Super Immune Booster which contains arabinogalactan. Studies show that arabinogalactan intake helps boost Natural Killer cell function.

Strongly consider support for your brain and HPA stress tolerance. Adaptogens like Rhodiola rosea, holy basil, Eleutherococcus, and ashwagandha are helpful. Mood support may include coenzyme Q10, curcumin, B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, pantethine, phosphatidylserine, theanine and others. Several of these nutrients and others like Daily Protector, Brain Protector, Grape Seed Extract, Vitamin C, and Turmeric Gold, etc provide antioxidants to support against oxidative stress.

I encourage you to use this information to propel you to support your health. If you are in the trenches of isolation, loneliness, and despair, focus on what you can do to help your body and mind cope against this battle. When you focus on what you don’t have or your mind is jumbled with worrisome thoughts, it makes the stressors of isolation worse.

Find ways to help someone else. Everyone needs a friend and encouragement. Use these resources with stress management techniques such as prayer and worship, meditation, warm baths, music and dance, writing letters, wood working, knitting, and gardening, doing a zoom class, adopting a pet or whatever activity that fills your bucket. The paradox of the COVID-19 social isolation is that you are not alone.

Here are some additional resources:

Adaptogen Rhodiola Helps Stress Resilience, Cognitive Function, and Mood

Stress and Adrenals: Restoring the HPA Axis

Adaptogens, Stress, and the HPA Axis

Grumpy and Exhausted? Support Your Mitochondria, Brain, Adrenals

GABA: Managing Brain Stimulation, Anxiety, and Other Consequences

Serotonin Linked with Mood, Sleep, Gut Health, Thyroid, and More

Vitamin C for Stress, Collagen, Immunity

Taming Anxiety Requires Healthy Brain Mitochondria Function

PQQ and Coenzyme Q10 – Powerful Nutrients for Your Health

A Game Plan for Optimizing Immune Function

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