Real pain of loneliness ‘proven’ as friendship shown to give bigger painkilling hit than morphine

Study reveals friendship releases powerful natural painkillers – but results warn against ‘cyber friends’ rather than face-to-face contact
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Oxford University research shows friendship causes better high than morphine

Loneliness has been showed to cause actual pain as a study found having friends gives the body a bigger painkilling hit than morphine.

Researchers at Oxford University found friendship had a powerful physical effect on the body, reducing stress and depression while boosting levels of brain chemical endorphins, which are stronger than morphine.

They also discovered that those who exercise or have high stress levels have fewer friends, meaning they might get their endorphin ‘hit’ that way.

The study warned our modern isolating lifestyles with cyber friends rather than meeting up face to face could affect how our bodies cope.

Friends laughing at dinner party
Friendship helps ward off pain with the release of endorphins in the brain

It had set out to explore whether differences in a person’s brain biology explained why some had more friends and family than others.

Doctoral student Katerina Johnson in the University’s Department of Experimental Psychology said: “I was particularly interested in a chemical in the brain called endorphin.

“Endorphins are part of our pain and pleasure circuitry – they’re our body’s natural painkillers and also give us feelings of pleasure.

“Previous studies have suggested that endorphins promote social bonding in both humans and other animals.

Prosecco
Social animals: Painkilling chemicals are released by the brain when we meet friends

“One theory, known as ‘the brain opioid theory of social attachment’, is that social interactions trigger positive emotions when endorphin binds to opioid receptors in the brain.

“This gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends.

“To test this theory, we relied on the fact that endorphin has a powerful painkilling effect – stronger even than morphine.”

The study published in the journal Scientific Reports used pain tolerance as a way to test the brain’s endorphin activity.

It proved the theory that those with friends could withstand more pain.

Ms Johnson added: “These results are also interesting because recent research suggests that the endorphin system may be disrupted in psychological disorders such as depression.

“This may be part of the reason why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and become socially withdrawn.”

Yet she found both fitter people and those with high stress levels tended to have smaller social networks.

She explained: “It may simply be a question of time – individuals that spend more time exercising have less time to see their friends.

“However, there may be a more interesting explanation – since both physical and social activities promote endorphin release, perhaps some people use exercise as an alternative means to get their ‘endorphin rush’, rather than socialising.

“The finding relating to stress may indicate that larger social networks help people to manage stress better, or it may be that stress or its causes mean people have less time for social activity, shrinking their network.

“Studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor determining how long we live.
“Therefore, understanding why individuals have different social networks sizes and the possible neurobiological mechanisms involved is an important research topic.

“As a species, we’ve evolved to thrive in a rich social environment but in this digital era, deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors contributing to the declining health of our modern society.”

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