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Adults Who Go to Bed Lonely Get Stress Hormone Boost Next Morning

A new study that takes a rare look at the physiological, social and emotional dynamics of day-to-day experiences in real-life// settings shows that when older adults go to bed lonely, sad or overwhelmed, they have elevated levels of cortisol shortly after waking the next morning.

Elevated levels of cortisol -- a stress hormone linked to depression, obesity and other health problems when chronic -- actually cue the body on a day-to-day basis that it is time to rev up to deal with loneliness and other negative experiences, according to Northwestern University’s Emma K. Adam, the lead investigator of the study.

The study, “Day-to-day experience-cortisol dynamics,” were published online the week of Oct. 30 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“You’ve gone to bed with loneliness, sadness, feelings of being overwhelmed, then along comes a boost of hormones in the morning to give you the energy you need to meet the demands of the day,” said Adam, assistant professor of education and social policy and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

The morning cortisol boost could help adults who went to bed with troubled or overwhelming feelings go out in the world the next day and have the types of positive social experiences that help regulate hormone levels, she said.

Adam also is a faculty fellow at C2S: The Center on Social Disparities and Health. C2S is a new center within the Institute for Policy Research that is reaching across Northwestern’s two campuses and a number of social, life and biomedical disciplines to offer a 21st century look at how biological, social and cultural dynamics intersect and affect health throughout the life span.

Cortisol is often characterized as a negative hormone because of evidence, mostly in animal models, that long-term elevations could be potentially harmful to physical health. But in the short term the stress hormone is adaptive a
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