Pandemic Stress Has Caused a Hair Loss Crisis
What You Should Know:
Many people have experienced hair loss after recovering from COVID-19 because of a stress-induced condition called telogen effluvium.
This type of hair loss has also affected people who haven’t contracted the coronavirus.
Telogen effluvium isn’t permanent, and hair will typically grow back as long as stress levels are reduced.
This is Meredith's Story:
Meredith McGraw first noticed that her hair was thinning dramatically in March, around three months after she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The hair loss didn’t happen gradually or subtly; it was sudden and alarming. McGraw said she was deeply distressed by the “clumps and piles” of “dry, straw-like, tangled hair” that were falling from her scalp.
“I was losing tons of hair and it was falling all at once, tangling in knots with the attached hair while I slept or washed my hair,” she told Very well. “I cried often and felt hopeless. I was terrified of people seeing me with this hair.”
McGraw is far from alone. A study found that among patients who had been hospitalized with COVID, 22% were dealing with hair loss months after being discharged.1 In the summer, the Institute of Trichologists (IoT) in the United Kingdom surveyed its members and found that 79% said they’d seen cases of “post-COVD hair loss” in their clinics, The Guardian reported.
What exactly is causing former COVID patients to lose their hair? The answer isn’t entirely straightforward, but experts say it likely has more to do with the stress that comes from contracting the virus than the illness itself.
“There are many reasons people experience hair loss, and stress is one of them,” Meg Mill, PharmD, a functional medicine practitioner, told Very well.
Telogen effluvium, the clinical term for stress-related hair loss, typically occurs around three months after a stressful event, Mill said.
You should know that people can experience hair loss after going through childbirth or a major surgery, and health practitioners are seeing the same results after COVID-19 infection in some people. Spiked stress levels can disrupt the hair's natural growth cycle and lead to excessive shedding and hair loss. Not Just COVID Patients
Since much of the world has been under unprecedented levels of stress in the past two years, telogen effluvium has affected many who haven’t caught the virus as well, me included.
In the summer of 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, my hair was falling out in much larger clumps than usual. I was accustomed to a certain amount of regular shedding because my hair is curly and fairly thick—or at least it used to be. But as time went on, my hair grew thinner, and I came to dread washing my hair because I was scared about how much of it would fall out in the shower.
When I spoke to my doctor about it, her first guess was some kind of vitamin or nutrient deficiency, such as iron or B12. I did multiple rounds of blood tests in an attempt to uncover the cause, but ultimately we concluded that I was simply overwhelmed with stress, spending too much time in fight-or-flight mode.
Fortunately, when it comes to telogen effluvium, the hair loss isn’t permanent, Mill said. Still, losing that much hair can be incredibly emotionally distressing, which is why many—including McGraw—have turned to online and in-person support groups.
Lisa Penziner, RN, who founded the COVID-19 Long Haulers Support Group, said that the group has helped people experiencing hair loss feel less isolated and alone.
“We have had members lose portions of their hair, experience hair thinning, or even lose most of their hair,” Penziner said. “Some have even chosen to shave their heads as a way to reduce the emotional toll of hair loss.”
These support groups have also helped equip those experiencing hair loss with the tools they need to promote regrowth once the thinning has halted.
Now that McGraw’s hair has stopped falling, she said she’s doing hair oil masks, using biotin shampoo, doing apple cider rinses and taking hair and nail supplements. All of these measures can be helpful, Mill said, adding that biotin, iron, zinc, B6, B12, and folic acid are all essential for hair growth.
But the number one way to combat hair loss is to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone.
“The first way you can decrease cortisol is to prioritize sleep,” Mill said. “Cortisol levels drop and melatonin increases when we sleep, so getting adequate sleep is crucial.”
Another easy technique to reduce cortisol is to practice deep breathing, she added. Taking deep breaths can tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, which predominates in quiet “rest and digest” conditions and reduces activities in the brain area that triggers the flight-or-flight reflex.2
“Beginning practices such as meditation, mindfulness, gratitude journaling that help your body relax are also beneficial in reducing cortisol levels and increasing hair regrowth,” Mill said, highlighting some of the same self-care and wellness practices I used to manage my own stress-related hair loss.
"Concentrate on reducing your stress and eating a variety of nutrients in your diet to regain your lush locks."
What This Means for You If you’ve experienced hair loss after a COVID-19 infection or following a stressful event, you’re not alone. Focus on reducing stress in your life, eating well and getting more sleep to help reduce cortisol levels.