Why friends are good for your health

Eating healthy, sleeping enough, breathing in forest air regularly: there are many tips for a strong immune system. "Maintain your social life" is usually not one of them. But it should.
At least secretly, everyone will suspect: The cold or the flu does not always happen accidentally in or after a stress phase. The immune system is under attack. Chronic stress arises in many ways, but also when something is wrong in social life. Family and friends play an immense role in the immune system. They protect us from the pathogenic, grueling overload - or help to overcome the ballast. They are our anchor.

Prof. Christian Schubert of the University Hospital in Innsbruck calls a "good elixir of life" a good social environment. The psychoneuroimmunologist has been researching the interactions of the psyche and the immune system for years. Classical immunology has long been skeptical. "But in the meantime, we are dealing with hard facts that can not be denied," he explains.

Immune system is conditionable

The immune system is conditionable. In the laboratory, it is possible to observe modifications of the genetic material down to the cell nucleus. It is not the short-term psychological burden that bothers us. It is the chronic - like loneliness longer. The social environment gives us closeness, support, trust, and empathy. If we do not, it often leads to loneliness and bitterness. This, in turn, can result in chronic stress, making it harder to process external stress. At worst, we get sick, even physically.
An army of friends and acquaintances does not have to be crowded around: The size of the social network correlates only slightly with the satisfaction of a person, explains Prof. Thomas Fydrich from the Humboldt University in Berlin. "For loneliness is nothing objective." There are couples who are self-sufficient. Or even more extreme: hermits who live contentedly on their own. But if someone is involuntarily lonely, the risk of becoming ill increases.

Who gets what disease? "This is a very exciting question for which there is still no concrete answer," says Schubert. One thing is clear: there are several factors involved, genetic, the personality structure and the living environment, for example. Under certain circumstances, one person will catch a virus, another will develop an allergy, and others will struggle with inflammation. Even in people who are already suffering from depression, the immune system is reduced.

On the other hand, active social life is no guarantee for mental and physical health. The immune system is a very complex and sometimes fragile entity. In addition to the psyche and thus the social life, sleep, exercise and a healthy lifestyle are also crucial.

In addition, social life is not beneficial per se. It can also be a risk factor. Namely, when one can not say "no" and the contact with others becomes too much, says Fydrich. Then a kind of "social stress" arises. He too is not healthy.

Social network acts like a buffer

Caring for relatives is an extreme case of social stress. Caregivers are particularly at risk when the task makes them overburdened, warns Schubert. "Especially in a stress situation such as caring, it is important to mobilize resources and discuss their problems with someone," adds Fydrich. A social network works like a buffer. The more varied and versatile, the greater the impact.

In that sense, a social environment made up of more than one person can be beneficial. Because if a caregiver gets sick, separates or dies, the others can at least partially absorb this.

If someone is more withdrawn or a couple predominantly for themselves, Fydrich recommends: "Go in clubs, do something, do something with others!" It's not about doing something extra ambitious or intense. Even playing cards once a month may be enough care for their own social network - and thus increases the support resources for a future crisis.


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