Feeling sad at night?

Pete is not alone in his loneliness – millions of aging adults find themselves in similar situations. But, exactly how does being sad or lonely or overwhelmed affect us physically?

Researchers at Northwestern University recently found the body “knows” when you’re feeling sad at night and compensates the following morning by increasing the amount of cortisol in your system.

Cortisol is the stress hormone that regulates the body’s response to both physical and psychological stressors. Produced by the adrenal cortex, cortisol is critical in the regulation of blood pressure and blood sugar levels. The body also secretes additional cortisol to deal with short-term needs, as in the fight or flight response.

In the case of loneliness and other negative emotional experiences, scientists suggest the additional boost of cortisol in the morning prepares both the body and the mind to meet the challenges of a new day. Though not yet fully understood, it appears cortisol and emotional experiences interact in a unique interplay. Negative emotions result in higher levels of cortisol the following day – the higher levels of cortisol ease the stress and, as a result, the cortisol levels fall. The following day, the interplay begins anew.

Researchers hope their studies will offer insight into the impact of emotions on physical wellbeing.

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.