Dr's Casebook: Working from home and loneliness has caused some people to put on weight

The increasing transmissibility of the Omicron variant and the social restrictions that are being considered is a cause of great concern.
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Dr Keith Souter writes: We know from past lockdowns that many found them extremely hard to cope with.

People reported that working from home and loneliness caused them to put on weight and suffer from insomnia.

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It is easy to explain these as the psychological effects caused by the removal of the normal working, travelling schedules and social interaction in the workplace. Yet it may be deeper than that and could have a biological and evolutionary basis.

Studies show social isolation may have a biological toll. Photo: Getty ImagesStudies show social isolation may have a biological toll. Photo: Getty Images
Studies show social isolation may have a biological toll. Photo: Getty Images

Over the years I have often written about medical research carried out using fruit flies.

Fruit flies are social creatures. They forage in groups, have complex mating rituals and as individuals have definite fighting behaviour over ripe fruit or selection of a mate. They actually box or wrestle.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature, fruit flies were studied in various lockdown situations for varying periods of time.

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They found that when isolated in a group the fruit flies did not show anomalous behaviour even after a whole week.

Even two fruit flies isolated together seemed content.

However, a single fruit fly isolated in a test tube for a single day exhibited less sleep and it overate.

They found that extreme isolation causes biological changes in the nervous system of the fruit fly, resulting in too little sleep and overeating.

They found that a small group of cells in the fruit fly brain, the P2 neurons were involved in this altered sleeping and feeding behaviour.

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Isolation seemed to trigger a biological mechanism that kept the individual fruit fly hungry and sleep deprived.

This is a phenomenon that has been observed in other social creatures, so it could be an evolutionary mechanism.

The scientists suspect that the isolation or loneliness it experiences could be creating uncertainty about the future, so the hunger is a biological preparation for the future, and the sleep deprivation could be the equivalent of the lone creature’s concern for safety from predators.

Those mechanisms are less likely to operate in a group.

Perhaps the fruit flies tell us that lockdowns and social isolation may have a biological toll.

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