Over the past few years we’ve all been subject to huge amounts of change, anxiety and pressure as we juggle a new reality. Whether it’s health, working from home, balancing home schooling or lockdowns, a lack of support, financial worries or countless other things. It’s no wonder many of us feel a continual level of stress. With so much going on, have you paused to think what kind of impact stress is having on your hair?
What is stress?
Daily stresses seem to be a part of our everyday life. And our body is hardwired to learn to protect and cope with it. When faced with a perceived "stressor" the hypothalamus (a region at the base of the brain) sets off an alarm and our adrenal glands produce hormones of adrenalin and cortisol. Adrenaline increases our heartrate, raises our blood pressure, and prepares the body to fight the stress. Cortisol is often known as the "stress hormone", however it plays an important role in how our body can respond to stress. Small increases in cortisol can be helpful to help the body defend against stress. The main issue occurs when prolonged periods of stress with no release, and we build up our levels of cortisol in our body.
Whilst the focus of cortisol synthesis has been on the Hypothalemus, recent studies have shown that cortisol can also be produced and synthesised through the skin, including the hair follicles.
How does stress cause hair loss?
We all lose hair, in fact it’s completely normal to lose up to 100 hairs a day. However in times of extreme stress, it’s not uncommon for this number to increase significantly. But why is this the case? To best understand it, we need to know a little more about the hair growth cycle.
Hair growth is cyclical, passing through three main stages:
- Anagen - the growth stage
- Catagen - the rest stage
- Telogen - the shedding stage
Periods of extreme or prolonged stress can disrupt this cycle, speeding it up and forcing more hairs than normal into the telogen shedding stage. The medical term for this increased shedding, and one you may read about on many pages about hair loss is ‘Telogen Effluvium’.
As we all react differently to stress, some peoples experiences may be more extreme than others. Periods of illness, surgery, weight loss, or grief can all be examples of extreme stress that may lead to a period of hair loss.
Is stress related hair loss permanent?
If you are experiencing hair loss that you believe is a result of stress you must be wondering will it stop? Or is it permanent? Whilst there is no definitive answer for everyone, in many cases Telogen Effluvium is not permanent. And in fact if the cause of your hair loss is stress related, you will often find that once the stresses are relieved your hair cycle can recover.
This can take time however. The hair cycle can be slow, but once the trigger of the hair loss has been established and addressed, hair can regrow within 3-6 months.
What can you do to manage stress?
We’ve all heard it before, exercise releases endorphins. And sometimes it must feel like the last thing you want to do. But it can be a great chance to clear your head, reset and move your body. Find something you enjoy, whether that is an exercise class with other people, or a walk in the outdoors.
If you know you’re experiencing extreme stress sometimes it can feel overwhelming and you feel out of control. Take the time to talk to someone. Or address it with the doctor. You may be sure that the stress itself is the cause of the hair loss, but it’s always a good idea to discuss it with a medical professional and have tests done to make sure there’s nothing else going on.
You don’t have to be alone. A good support network of friends or family or others in your community can greatly relieve some of the burden. If you’re experiencing hair loss we have a wonderful community of women on Facebook in this group that are a great support to each other. All experiencing a similar thing, and able to give support, advise and recommendations.
Don’t underestimate the power of self care, and taking time for yourself. Whether that be making sure you get enough sleep, to meditation, or even treating yourself to your favourite food. Small things and prioritising yourself can go along way to alleviating everyday stresses. Make it a weekly ritual to put on a fabulous hair mask, and relax in the bath.
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 Knurek Sean, Understanding cortisol, the stress hormone. Michegan State University Extension Published November 27, 2018
 Sharpley CF, McFarlane JR, Slominski A. Stress-linked cortisol concentrations in hair: what we know and what we need to know. Rev Neurosci. 2011;23(1):111-121. Published 2011 Dec 8. doi:10.1515/RNS.2011.058