Hair Loss and Stress

Some experts will tell you that hair loss and stress are not connected - even going so far as to suggest the idea is "absolutely ridiculous" (see WebMD). Others will tell you that there is scientific evidence to back up the fact that a connection between hair loss and stress exists.

Hair loss and stress

So why do members of the medical establishment seem to have such completely different opinions about the relationship between the two?

Well, the answer lies in understanding exactly what stress actually means, and how different forms of stress can affect the body in different ways.

You're Late for Work, The Kids Have Been Arguing All Morning, the House is a Mess...

...so it's very likely you're experiencing stress!

But is the worry associated with these day-to-day events really going to cause your hair to fall out?

The answer - unless it's unusually extreme worry - is no, because what you're experiencing is actually emotional stress... the normal strain on the mind and body associated with dealing with the typical pressures of life.

In some ways, this type of stress may be beneficial to us... it spurs us on to complete tasks and overcome difficulties. It makes us feel 'alive'. 

But sometimes, emotional stress can become overwhelming, which actually starts to have an impact on health.

When stress levels become too high to tolerate, we start to feel 'run down'. We might not sleep very well at night. We might not eat properly. Our levels of stress hormone may increase significantly. We might even end up taking some sort of medication to deal with the stress overload.

And it's at this point that severe emotional stress can develop into physiological stress... a form of stress that may, indeed, trigger hair loss or poor hair growth.

There are various life 'events' that can trigger physiological stress.

One is extreme emotional stress as we've discussed, but other triggers include...

  • starting/stopping oral contraceptives or other medication
  • big changes to the diet, particularly switching to a very low calorie diet, or one with little protein
  • losing over 15lb in weight
  • thyroid disease
  • serious infection or illness
  • low estrogen levels
  • high fever
  • major surgery
  • eating disorder, particularly one that leaves the body lacking in certain nutrients
  • childbirth
  • major blood loss

The effect isn' t instantaneous, though - something that's often misunderstood when it comes to hair loss. It can take  from 3 to 6 months for the hair to start falling out after the stressful event has occurred - so it's always a good idea to think back to any major events that occurred in YOUR life 3 to 6 months ago if you're experiencing new hair loss now.

Hair loss/thinning may continue for a further 3 to 6 months after you first notice a problem.


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So WHY Does Physiological Stress Cause Hair Loss?

There's been some interesting research done on this topic, but - put simply - the body seems to divert its 'resources' away from the hair and to wherever else they are needed in times of physiological stress.

Dermatologist Flor A Mayoral, MD, FAAD explained at the American Academy of Dermatology SKIN Academy in 2007 that the body sometimes needs a 'time out' from growing hair to concentrate on recovery and healing.

Dr Mayoral added that "hair loss is a normal response to stress" and that "stress may be the primary reason for unexplained hair loss".

Can Physiological Stress Cause Alopecia Areata?

This is another contentious issue, with different members of the medical profession holding slightly different opinions.

Daniel K Hall-Flavin MD says on the Mayo Clinic website that high stress levels may trigger alopecia areata, as does this article by Elizabeth Scott, MS.

Rather than an overall thinning of the hair, alopecia areata tends to cause 'patchy' hair loss, with the patches circular and quite well defined. Occasionally, however, the whole scalp and even the body can be affected.

The American Hair Loss Association, however - whilst acknowledging that many dermatologists AND the general public view alopecia areata as a stress-induced condition - say that there is little scientific evidence to support the theory.

They say that stress might trigger it in some people, but that research shows the problem is more likely to be caused by genes.

That being said, this expert article from Dr Maria Hordinsky - a dermatologist from the University of Minnesota - discusses research that certainly seems to support a link between alopecia hair loss and stress. 

She explains that the actions of the nerves around hair follicles - along with the action of 'neuropeptides' (products of the nervous system) - can affect hair growth. Experiments on mice using a brain chemical called substance P showed a definite relationship between hair growth and the chemical. Growth was stimulated if the substance P was given to mice with hair follicles mainly in the 'resting' phase... but the hair prematurely moved to its 'catagen' phase (where it STOPS growing) if the substance was given when the hair of the mice was mainly in the growth phase.

Dr Hordinsky also explains that further research into hair loss and stress has shown hair follicles can secrete a stress-related hormone called cortisol, the discovery of which makes it unsurprising that hair follicles can respond to stress!

When Stress Causes Hair Pulling

One type of stress-related hair loss that mustn't be overlooked is trichotillomania.

This is a relatively rare condition where people can't help repeatedly pulling their hair - a problem usually triggered by stress. Whilst you would likely be aware if this condition was affecting you, it IS worth considering whether your stressful feelings are causing you to pull on your hair more than usual, to repeatedly twist it, or to keep rubbing your scalp.

Any of these habits could cause some degree of hair loss.

So If Stress HAS Caused Your Hair Loss, When Can You Expect the Hair to Grow Back?

Stress-related hair loss is usually temporary - when the cause of the stress stops or goes away, so does the hair loss, although it can take 6 months or so until your hair feels as full as it did originally.

Ways to Deal With Your Hair Loss and Stress

Ways to deal with stress

If your hair loss is caused by physiological stress such as surgery, extreme dieting etc, removing the 'stressor' is as simple as allowing your body to recover from the procedure, modifying your diet, etc. Your hair, too, should then recover.

But if your hair loss is caused by severe emotional stress that's affecting your overall health - stress that simple lifestyle changes won't fix - then you may want to think about seeking counseling or mastering some personal development techniques.

Here are some tips for dealing with stress and creating a calmer, happier, healthier you!

  • Treat yourself to a massage or ask your partner to do it for you.

  • Exercise every day for around 20 minutes. This releases "feel good" chemicals called endorphins which can even reverse the effects of stress.

  • Eat a balanced diet, full of simple, healthful foods. Avoid processed foods loaded with chemicals, or sugary foods that may affect your mood. Choose the 'brown' version of foods like bread, pasta and rice so you know you're getting the whole grain instead of a stripped down, nutritionally deficient substitute!

  • Invest in a few relaxation CDs and listen to them as you enjoy a soak in the tub each evening.

  • Learn to meditate! Here's a link to a free, online course if you'd like to give it a try.

  • Investigate mindfulness - a practice designed to promote your physical and emotional well being.

  • Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is a fairly new therapy technique where you are helped to understand your problems and the impact they have on your thoughts and actions. You can learn more about it at Stressbusting and the Mayo Clinic.
Causes of hair loss

Hair Loss Causes

How smoking affects the hair

Does Smoking Cause Thinning Hair?

What's causing your itchy scalp?

What's Causing Your Itchy Scalp?

And in the meantime, here are some tips for hiding or disguising your thinning hair...



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