After navigating the chaos COVID-19 brought to the world, it's unsurprising that mental health issues spiked among US adults. From panic attacks, anxiety, low mood and insomnia, many adults say that their mental health worsened during this period. For some, the desire for control in an unsettled and unpredictable world resulted in a troubling eating disorder.
Dry hair, fragile strands, dull skin and brittle fingernails can all be signs of malnutrition. And sometimes, as the body struggles to maintain healthy functioning, hair begins to shed in worrying clumps. VEGAMOUR spoke to experts to learn more about eating disorders and why hair loss is a common symptom of some types of eating disorders. Plus, discover the products you can use to help support thicker, fuller, healthier hair.
What Is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are complex but treatable mental illnesses that impact physical health, relationships and productivity levels. Binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) see sufferers become obsessed with food, body image or weight. Powerful emotions, beliefs and behaviors around food and weight often lead to serious health complications, including organ function failure, kidney failure and even death. Here are a few of the most common eating disorders and their symptoms:
Anorexia Nervosa is typically characterized by excessive weight loss and self-starvation. Symptoms can include:
- Insufficient food intake leads to noticeable weight loss.
- An all-consuming fear of weight gain and persistent behavior to limit weight gain.
- Denial of the illness.
- Disturbance of self-image.
Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by a consuming cycle of binge eating, followed by compensatory behavior such as self-induced vomiting. Symptoms can include:
- Consistently eating large amounts of food followed by emotional upset and a sense of lost control.
- Concern leaning towards obsession regarding body weight and shape.
- Use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors such as compulsive exercising, vomiting, laxatives and extreme fasting.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent binge eating episodes without measures to compensate for the behavior. Symptoms can include:
- Eating large quantities of food frequently, usually over a short period.
- Feeling out of control while binging.
- Experiencing shame, guilt and upset post-binge.
Other specified feeding or eating disorder (ODFED) Symptoms can include:
- Anorexia nervosa (atypical — where weight doesn't drop below what is considered normal).
- Bulimia nervosa (where occurrences are less frequent).
- Binge eating disorder (where events are less frequent).
- Night eating syndrome (eating excessively mid-night).
- Purging disorder (purging over binging).
As with most mental illnesses, rather than being caused by just one thing, disordered eating can be caused by various psychological, sociocultural and biological factors. It's not solely a disease of the body, but more a disease of the mind. Eating disorder treatment includes counseling or psychotherapy and careful attention to nutrition and medical needs.
Current figures suggest that in the United States alone, 20 million women and 10 million men have spent some time in their life suffering from a clinically significant eating issue. "Typically, symptoms of anorexia include restricting food intake in some way, bulimia includes binging/purging behaviors, and binge eating disorder includes eating large quantities of food past the point of fullness without any compensatory behaviors," Stephanie Gilbert, LMFT, BICBT-CC told VEGAMOUR.
The Connection Between Eating Disorders and Hair Loss
Eating disorders wreak havoc on the mental and physical state of the person suffering. "Hair loss is commonly seen in eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia, due to reduced nourishment," explained Gilbert.
When the body is malnourished and lacks nutrients, existing protein supplies in the body diminish. When under stress (like when suffering from anorexia or bulimia), the body automatically puts organ function and muscle retention above all else. Hair is made up of the protein keratin and seeing as hair isn't essential to the body's functioning, hair growth can halt. Excessive shedding can occur as the body focuses on staying alive. This often results in the hair follicles returning to the resting phase, which delays hair growth and causes hair loss. Anorexia hair loss isn't uncommon, and sufferers might also experience brittle nails and dull, dry skin.
Thankfully, hair thinning will reduce once the diet is improved and professional guidance is implemented. A biotin-rich supplement can help support a healthy and balanced diet. The medical term for this type of hair loss is telogen effluvium. It describes the temporary shedding patients can experience when sudden weight changes occur.
Anorexia survivor Arwa Mahdawi told The Guardian about her experience with hair loss while suffering from an eating disorder. "While having a shower one day, a clump of hair came out in my hand," she said. "I'd suspected for a while that my hair was thinning. There has been a growing trail of evidence on my pillow, on the bathroom floor, on my clothes. But I'd never actually pulled away a handful of my hair away from my scalp before. I remember feeling so sick in that instant that I almost threw up. Except, of course, I hadn't eaten anything, so there was nothing to throw up. Holding a fistful of my hair, something inside me clicked. I realized what I'd done to myself and, for the first time since becoming sick, I actually wanted to get better."
Read More: Why Am I Losing So Much Hair?
Treating Hair Loss Relating to Eating Disorders
Recovering from eating disorders takes time and professional intervention, usually from a doctor. Hair loss can be one physical symptom that someone experiences which could propel them toward professional guidance. The National Eating Disorders Association suggests that hair loss reflects damage caused to someone's insides due to self-starvation or disordered eating. Because hair loss can be such an upsetting and emotionally draining occurrence, it might be the physical change that motivates patients to seek professional help.
"The only treatment for the physical symptoms of an eating disorder is to treat the eating disorder, both physically and mentally," said Gilbert.
A therapist can support the sufferer with the mental health symptoms, a dietitian can provide a meal plan, a psychiatrist can provide psychotropic medication if needed and a medical doctor can provide any medical treatment and keep track of vitals and blood work levels. If outpatient care isn't enough for the sufferer to recover, a higher level of care is needed, including intensive outpatient programs, residential programs and/or hospitalization."
Hair will begin to grow back once essential nutrients and minerals are added back into a person's daily nutrient intake. A hair serum fortified with nourishing, plant-based ingredients will encourage hair health from the scalp down, and a focus on overall mental, physical and emotional wellness will transform how someone looks and feels.
Read More: Coping With The Emotional Side of Hair Loss
If you notice someone you care about regularly skipping meals or entire food groups, it might be worth gently asking them about their relationship to food. Showing genuine concern in a kind and nonjudgmental way will let them know you're open and available to support them if and when they're ready to share.
Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other disorders often signal low self-esteem and self-worth. For someone already in emotional pain, hair loss can reflect the physical damage inside them, which might help someone realize the dangers of their habits.
Eating disorders can affect anyone and might not always look how you expect them to. If you or anyone you know is struggling, reach out to one or more of the following resources:
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders, Inc. (ANAD)
Eating Disorder Hope
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Photo credit: Riccardo Mion/UnSplash