Our Hair Can Reveal How Stressed Coronavirus Has Made Us, Scientists Think

Scientists will test stress hormones in hair to research how COVID-19 is affecting physical and emotional health.

Samples of Brits’ hair will go under the microscope in a landmark study to research how coronavirus is affecting people’s physical and emotional health.

From worrying about the health of loved ones and experiencing bereavement, to coping with financial woes, childcare issues and social distancing measures, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted society, the health service and the economy bringing a huge variety of stresses to people’s lives.

Now the researchers hope to use hair to understand how people’s stress levels have varied during the pandemic – to help plan services in future.

The study will collect samples of hair from volunteers throughout the UK and use questionnaires to assess people’s emotional and physical wellbeing – before repeating 12 weeks later, and potentially again once changes in social distancing are introduced.

The hair samples will be tested for levels of the stress hormone cortisol, signifying anxiety and depression. The team will also examine any measurable physical changes to people’s hair over the 12-week period.

Kavita Vedhara, professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham
Kavita Vedhara, professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham

Kavita Vedhara, professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham who is leading the study, told HuffPost UK: “We want to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the physical and emotional health of people in the UK.

“We have worked in the area of stress and health for 30 years now and one of the key things we’ve learnt is that when we experience stressful situations for protracted periods of time such as during this pandemic, it can have real implications for our health and wellbeing.”

Short periods of stress affect people’s physiology: an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, or perhaps blushing or sweating.

But the stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic are completely different, Professor Vedhara argues, as they are long-term and persistent, which is likely to lead to deeper consequences.

“As soon as we face anything challenging, our body reacts as quickly as our mind.”

- Professor Kavita Vedhara

Researchers want to examine if the emotional impact of the coronavirus outbreak and the levels of stress hormone cortisol lead to physical changes – and, if so, they want to give people choices about what they can do to reduce the impact.

“As soon as we face anything challenging, our body reacts as quickly as our mind,” she said. “It is a very prehistoric response to threat – like running away from a lion – and the short term response mobilises the body into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

“But the stress of modern-day life and the pandemic is a very different stress as it is a classic chronic stress condition and is drawn out and protracted.

“We have no idea when this pandemic is going to end, have very little control over it, and we perceive it as a significant threat to our wellbeing.

“Unlike the short-term physical reactions that happen in an acutely stressful situation such as a driving test, this period of stress is protracted which means those changes in your body become much more long-lasting.

“When a challenge persists such as with this pandemic, which people are finding extremely stressful, we are likely to see long term changes in the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

“Cortisol does a lot of things including regulating the immune system so where that translates into a change in cortisol, it could affect a person’s immune system and increase their vulnerability to illness.”

The Covid-19 Stress and Health Study is being carried out by experts at the University of Nottingham and King’s College London with the support of stress hormone testing company MyFertile.

The experts believe the social distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus and the new, constrained way of living as well as other challenges arising from the pandemic, are already likely to have affected people’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

Prof Vedhara told HuffPost UK the research is critical as it will allow the team to look at how the pandemic is not only affecting people’s mental health, but also their physical health.

“We have no idea how big an issue the consequences of this pandemic will be for the population.” she said. “The stresses people are experiencing now during this pandemic include bereavement; worrying about loved ones in hospital; financial worries; the pressures of homeschooling children; and social isolation.

“The idea is that if we look at the cortisol levels in people’s hair now, we will be able to see the immediate impact on the emotional health of the UK.

“When we look at it 12 weeks later, we will be able to see if the situation has got worse or if people have found a way of adapting.

“If the results show that the protracted emotional impact translates into a physical impact that means people are at greater risk of illness, we need to give the population choices about what they can do to reduce the impact of stress as cortisol is changed not only by mood, but lifestyle.”

By providing hair samples, people will allow experts to explore whether any stress they experience today and in the coming weeks could affect their health in the future.

Hair measuring one centimetre in length from the back of the head will allow researchers to see how cortisol has been in circulation for the previous four weeks.

Jennifer Adams
Jennifer Adams

Jennifer Adams, 30, has chosen to take part in the study by providing hair samples as she wants to know more about the impact the pandemic is having on her.

She told HuffPost UK that she is usually a very positive and upbeat person, but found herself on the verge of tears on a number of occasions as the impact of the coronavirus crisis on her life sank in.

“I had been telling everyone I was fine and I know everyone is going through this, but I just had this build-up and it suddenly hit me and I wanted to cry.”

- Jennifer Adams

Jennifer, a global programme manager for a shopfitting and display company, said: “I usually work long hours in the office and am in an open plan office with lots of people around me.

“I live on my own so being based in an office was very important to me and in the evenings and weekends, I was always visiting friends and family so was not home very often.

“So the social distancing measures have meant a huge change to my life as I was so used to having a busy work and social life and constantly being around people.”

Jennifer Adams
Jennifer Adams

Jennifer said that at first, working from home during the lockdown and spending evenings alone was fine as she appreciated having more time.

But she admitted that last week, she ran out of jobs to do and the enormity of the weekend with nothing to do hit her.

“I had been keeping myself busy with lots of jobs and had even cleared the loft out.” she said. “But then I ran out of things to do and began panicking about the weekend and didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Despite telling everyone she was fine and knowing everyone was in the same position, Jennifer felt a build-up of stress and suddenly found herself wanting to cry.

“I think it was a feeling of panic of being indoors constantly on my own and I realised how much my life had involved being with other people.

“I don’t mind being on my own, but I didn’t want to get lost in that and I could feel my mood changing.

“I always try to keep myself upbeat and not dwell on things so I did not realise how stressed I was getting.

“I felt worried about not seeing my family and I panicked thinking about certain friends I wouldn’t see for months.”

Laura Folan
Laura Folan

Laura Folan, 26, who lives in Birmingham, has also volunteered to take part in the study. She’s at increased risk from Covid-19 as she has asthma.

“The coronavirus outbreak sent me into panic mode. I have been hospitalised due to the flu in the past because of the way it affected my asthma,” she told HuffPost UK.

“The coronavirus outbreak sent me into panic mode. I have been hospitalised due to the flu in the past because of the way it affected my asthma.”

- Laura Folan

“I have also suffered from anxiety on and off for years because of my fertility issues.

“Myself and my partner were close to starting our screening in preparation for IVF but now all the clinics have closed due to coronavirus so we know it will be a good while before we can go ahead with fertility treatment.”

Laura Folan and partner Daniel Clarke,
Laura Folan and partner Daniel Clarke,

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, part of the University of Manchester, told HuffPost UK measuring cortisol through hair is a way to avoid invasive procedures such as taking blood samples.

He has welcomed the research study as he believes it is important to investigate the mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

But he’d also like to see the specific sources of people’s coronavirus stress investigated, so solutions can be found to prevent them affecting other people.

Prof Cary Cooper
Prof Cary Cooper

“There will be all sorts of reasons why people are experiencing stress during this pandemic such as people being socially isolated, people working remotely, the fear of job security, financial worries, family pressures and homeschooling children.

“To figure out a solution, you would need to know the specific sources of the stress so that you can try to correct it.

“I think it is great that experts and psychologists are researching the mental health impact of this virus.

“I would suggest the researchers collect data as well as to what the participants think might be causing the stress and use a mental health scale to measure it.

“Cortisol is one potential indicator of stress levels and using it in conjunction with psychometric tests is a good way of looking at stress.”

The hair samples need to be at least three millimetres wide and one centimetre long to take part in the study, and taken from the back of the head.

First, the research team will look at the emotional impact of the pandemic in its first few weeks – in particular, the levels of anxiety and depression it may have caused.

They will then consider how these effects on emotional wellbeing change after 12 weeks of living with the pandemic and what happens as and when there are changes in social distancing regulations.

The team will also examine whether the emotional effects are associated with measurable physical changes by assessing how levels of the hormone cortisol change over the 12-week period.

Recruitment to the first phase of the study is open until the end of April so the team can capture the early effects of the pandemic. Anyone interested in taking part can visit covidstressstudy.co.uk for more information.

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