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On Your Health

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Does Stress Cause Hair Loss?

Stress can play a role in many health problems, from digestive issues to weakening your immune system. But did you know it can also impact hair loss?

If you’re under more stress than normal and are experiencing atypical hair loss, you may be dealing with a condition known as telogen effluvium. We explain how stress impacts hair loss, the science behind hair growth, how stress can alter this growth and if this condition can be reversed.

 

Hair science

The science of hair is one of the more fascinating parts of the human body. All mammals, including humans, have hair to serve as insulation — keeping the body warm in cooler temperatures and providing protection from the sun in warmer weather.

Each person is born with about 5 million hair follicles, of which 100,000 are on your scalp. Hair grows fastest on your scalp — about a half-inch per month or 6 inches per year.
These hair follicles are located in the dermis of the skin, or the middle layer that includes tissue, nerves, blood vessels and oil and sweat glands. Each hair follicle contains protein cells called keratin that grow with assistance from blood vessels. As the cells grow, they pass through oil glands that help keep hair soft and hydrated.

From a biological standpoint, there are three stages of the hair growth cycle:

  • Growth (anagen): Hair grows and pushes through the skin.
  • Degeneration (catagen): Hair dies and the base of the hair follicle slowly shrinks.
  • Rest (telogen): Hair falls out before it regenerates, once again initiating the cycle.

Hair follicles are in the anagen stage 85 to 90 percent of the time. Stem cells are active in this phase — stem cells spur cell division that helps new growth — then remain dormant during the inactive telogen stage. Hair can be in the growth stage anywhere from two to four years before transitioning to the rest phase for two to four months.

Interestingly, the hair dies by the time it’s visible on your skin. In fact, you actually lose 50 to 100 hairs each day. 

Explanation of Hair Loss

 

Why does stress cause hair loss?

When you become stressed or experience a state of sadness or fear, your body reacts by producing hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol, to help you deal with these emotions. Chronic stress can impact cardiovascular health, make you more prone to illness and cause breathing issues. It can even cause your hair to gray!

Now researchers are finding out how and why it can impact stem cells and hair growth. The condition, called telogen effluvium, forces hair follicles into the telogen phase due to an abrupt change, shock (usually stress) or certain medications. Telogen effluvium is often an acute condition, but it can become chronic when the underlying causes are left untreated.

Earlier this year, Harvard University researchers discovered stress hormones produced by the adrenal gland places hair follicle stem cells into an extended resting phase.

The study was conducted in mice and found chronic stress impacted dermal papilla, cells at the base of hair follicles that assist in hair formation, growth and regrowth. More specifically, the hormone inhibited the cells from releasing Gas6, a molecule that activates stem cells needed for hair growth.

Dormant phases not only don’t produce new hair cells, they also cause hair to shed easier. About 30 percent of hair follicles enter the resting phase, leading to more hair loss than normal.

 

How to regain hair loss from stress

Harvard researchers found the mice entered the growth phase and produced hair once the stress hormones were removed from the equation. 

The good news is stress-related hair loss isn’t permanent — as long as you limit stress. It can come back by correcting the triggers causing the stress. Hair follicles will take about six to nine months to regrow following an extended period of dormancy.

Eat Well

Ice cream, hamburgers and french fries are considered comfort foods for a reason. They make us feel good, but only temporarily. This has to do with an instant sugar high you experience from the body breaking down simple carbohydrates quickly into blood sugar. These foods can actually contribute to stress, as many processed foods and meals high in saturated fat can increase inflammation that leads to stress.

Fueling your body with fruits, vegetables and lean proteins is the best way to control stress through your diet. The Mediterranean diet is a great way to start and has been shown to decrease inflammation.

Sleep

Our bodies need sleep to recharge after a long day. A lack of sleep doesn’t allow your brain to rest for the inevitable challenges the next day will bring.

Try to sleep seven to nine hours per night. Studies show adults who get at least eight hours of sleep are less likely to feel irritable, angry or overwhelmed, have more energy and motivation and are less likely to lose patience and yell at their spouse or child.

Exercise

Exercise not only can reduce hormones that cause stress, but it can also stimulate happy brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins to boost your mood.

Strive for some sort of daily activity, even if it’s a walk in your neighborhood, to get your heartrate moving.

Practice relaxation

It’s easy to get stressed when your brain is in overdrive. Sometimes, all it takes is some simple relaxation to recharge. Yoga or meditation are two ways to help your body and mind relax. With yoga, a variety of poses and stretches help relieve tense muscles that tighten up with stress. Various meditation techniques can help improve circulation and lower cortisol levels that lead to stress.

Controlled breathing

When stressful situations arise, using controlled breathing techniques can be your secret weapon to combat stress. Deep breathing is the most common form of controlled breathing. It’s also known as belly or abdominal breathing because you use your diaphragm to fill your lungs.

To practice controlled breathing, take a slow, deep breath through your nose. Allow your lungs to fill with enough air so your stomach begins to rise. Then slowly release the air through your mouth. Repeat these breaths for several minutes each day.

Positive affirmations

Simply changing your mindset can help tame stress. Positive affirmations focus on positive self talk in which you write down or speak about specific outcomes. Start by writing down a few personal statements on a 3-by-5 index card. Reflect on these statements several times a day. Over time, these repetitive statements will help shift your mindset from negative to positive.

 

Hair that falls out during a shower or when combing your hair is entirely normal. But if you find yourself shedding more hair than normal, there’s a chance you may be suffering from stress-induced telogen effluvium. Contact your primary care physician to discuss healthy ways you can reduce stress levels.

 

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