Looking for ways to improve your social life? For starters, adopting a healthy sleep schedule could make a huge difference according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley).

The findings of their new study were published in the journal Nature Communications on Aug. 14.

"It's perhaps no coincidence that the past few decades have seen a marked increase in loneliness and an equally dramatic decrease in sleep duration," said lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley. "Without sufficient sleep, we become a social turn-off, and loneliness soon kicks in."

Using tools like fMRI brain imaging, the researcher team conducted experiments to understand the social effects of sleep deprivation. 18 healthy young adults viewed video clips of a person walking towards them and were instructed to press a "stop" button when the person got too close. 

Compared to when they had a night of adequate rest, the sleep-deprived participants would stop the person at a greater distance away, between 18 and 60 percent further back.

When watching the video clips, the participants also underwent brain scans which showed notable activity in two circuits. The first region (which perceives potential threats) showed heightened activity in the sleep-deprived brains. The other brain region (which encourages social interaction) was shut down following a night of poor sleep.

In another experiment, over 1,000 observers were asked to view videos of people discussing commonplace opinions and activities. They were unaware that some people in the videos were sleep-deprived.

When the observers were asked to rate the people on a number of scales, the sleep-deprived ones were often rated as seeming lonelier and less socially desirable.  

"The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact," said senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.

"In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss. That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness."

An additional finding emerged when the observers were asked to rate their own levels of loneliness after watching videos of sleep-deprived people. Many reported feeling alienated after viewing the 60-second clip, even if they were well-rested themselves.

This seemed to suggest that loneliness could be somewhat "contagious" as interacting or being around an unsociable individual could influence the other person to feel isolated as well.

Health experts around the world have shed light on a growing epidemic of loneliness, which has been linked to cognitive decline, compulsive use of digital technology, reduced physical activity, and other problems.

"On a positive note, just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you," Walker said.