Can stress cause hair loss
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Can Stress Cause Hair Loss?

The short answer to this is; yes, stress can cause hair loss. At present, the medical community recognizes three conditions where stress has a direct link with losing your hair. However, there are also complex biochemical relationships between stress hormones and hair loss that have little to do with the conditions we’ll delve into.

Understanding the three conditions, as well as the relationship between your stress-related hormones and hair loss is essential. With the right knowledge, you can identify the cause, create a plan that’ll either slow hair loss down or encourages regrowth, and then make appropriate lifestyle changes.

To start, we’ll look at the three conditions where stress and hair loss have a direct relationship.

There three conditions where stress and hair loss are positively linked

Without further adieu;

Trichotillomania

If you’re experiencing negative emotions such as frustration, loneliness, boredom, or stress, you may start pulling hair from various areas of your body. In most cases, this means the eyebrows and eyelashes. However, some people begin targeting the hair on their scalp.

Officially, trichotillomania is an ‘impulse control disorder.’ In other words, if you’re pulling your hair out in response to stress; you can’t help it. Usually, you will feel tense before pulling your hair out, followed by a sense of relief when you’ve removed it.

If you approach a medical professional for treatment, they’ll likely refer you to a ‘habit reversal training’ program. Such programs involve taking the ‘bad’ habit and replacing it with a new one. However, if you’re interested in self-help, you may want to try:

  • Distraction techniques. Also known as self-soothing, distraction techniques involve turning to a task instead of your habit. For example, organizing a closet.
  • Meditation. While meditating won’t help you ‘in the moment,’ engaging in five minutes of it each morning reduces your stress levels.
  • Take a breather. When you feel your tension mounting, find a quiet space and engage in deep breathing exercises for five minutes. Doing so lowers your blood pressure, making you feel less stressed.

Telogen Effluvium

While the name may sound fancy, the concept is simple; your body is experiencing so much stress, your hair begins to fall out. This state may start in response to acute or chronic stress. For example, either when you experience a sudden and shocking event that causes severe stress, or you experience stress for weeks, months, or years.

Patients with this condition may lose up to 70-percent of their hair. Why your hair begins to fall out depends on the ‘event’ that triggers your stress. For example, some women experience this condition around three months after giving birth because the sudden withdrawal of the estrogen that made their hair grow thick and lustrous during pregnancy destabilizes the hair’s growth cycle. Or, someone who has just encountered surgery, a car accident, or a fever will produce cytokines that stop hair follicles from initiating the growth phase.

Fortunately, this condition is temporary. It reverses once the stressor is removed, allowing hair growth to return to normal.

Alopecia areata

Unlike the androgenic alopecia that causes male-pattern baldness, alopecia areata is thought to have a direct link with extreme stress. Usually, the hair loss occurs in coin-sized patches, and it can take months or years for hair to regrow.

Unfortunately, the exact mechanisms behind alopecia areata aren’t fully understood. What we do know is that the body enters a state of extreme inflammation, causing it to attack the hair follicles. When this happens, the hair follicles are no longer capable of promoting the growth you need for a healthy head of hair. Around 80-percent of people will see their hair regrow within a year, without treatment. However, there’s always a chance that alopecia areata will crop up again; especially if you’re going through a stressful time.

Biologically, this makes sense. Scientists over at Carnegie Mellon have figured out that Cortisol can either play a positive or a negative role in inflammation. In simple terms, Cortisol is a hormone we produce when we feel stressed. If it has something to respond to, or if we remove the stressor, it goes away. However, when it’s left to build up, it prevents our bodies from controlling their inflammatory processes. As alopecia areata is an inflammatory condition, it makes sense that an increase in stress-related cortisol will trigger it.

Stress-related hormones and hair loss

Now that we’re onto the topic of cortisol, we should examine the complicated relationship it has with hair loss outside of those diseases. One study highlights how men with ‘Type A’ personalities – aka those who lead stressful and hectic lives – have higher serum cholesterol levels. As we already know, stress means higher cortisol production, which also contributes to your cholesterol levels.

Now, here’s where things get tricky. While cholesterol can be bad for us, we do need some of it to produce testosterone. If our cortisol levels are high, there’s a chance our cholesterol levels are high, which also means our testosterone levels increase. As you may already know, testosterone plays a significant role in male pattern baldness.

The same theory applies to adrenaline, which is another stress hormone. A more recent study has revealed that those who are stressed have higher serum cortisol, adrenaline, HDL, AND LDL cholesterol levels. As such, they’re prime candidates for increased testosterone production.

The hair-loss-stress-hair-loss cycle

Whether you’re male or female, losing your hair can make stress worse in itself. The more hair you lose, the more stressed you become. When you become more stressed, you lose more hair. As the cycle continues, you need to start looking at ways to reduce your stress levels.

Ways to reduce stress

While there are some stressful situations we can remove ourselves from, others are unavoidable. For example, if there’s a work colleague who always brings you down, you can spend less time with them. On the other hand, if you’re in the midst of a traumatic life event such as a divorce, you have little control over when the stress will end.

In either situation, you can reduce stress to increase hair growth. Some ways to do this include:

Exercise

Exercising regularly doesn’t make your problems go away, but it does burn off the stress-related hormones that cause hair loss and exacerbate the three conditions we mentioned. Although we don’t know how there is evidence demonstrating that working out suppresses inflammation too. As such, you can tackle conditions that relate to both stress and inflammation.

Change your mindset

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s easy to take a passive approach and think “I can’t do anything about this.” Fortunately, no ‘crisis’ is impossible to manage. Take some time to figure out steps you can take to improve the situation. When you start to feel a sense of control, your stress levels plummet.

Changing your mindset also means accepting what you cannot change and then look at what you can. For example, if your boss has announced your company is going into administration, you can’t control that. What you can control, though, is looking for a new job.

Boost the hormones that make you feel less stressed

Socializing, trying new activities, and indulging in your hobbies will all boost three essential hormones: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. While serotonin makes you feel happier and promotes a better night’s sleep, dopamine will improve your focus, which then allows you to figure out solutions for your stressful situation. As for oxytocin; it’s the ‘hormone of love.’ From hugging to spending time with people you adore, there are lots of ways to increase its presence in your brain.

Make some lifestyle changes

When we feel stressed, we often try to self-medicate with substances such as alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. One study published in Behavioral Pharmacology found that alcohol abuse leads to anxious-like behaviors. Also, while you may feel as though that cigarette is calming you down, it’s raising your blood pressure. The sense of relief you feel comes with satisfying a craving, not reducing stress.

Focus on one ‘substance’ you feel you can realistically tackle and slowly cut it out of your life. Then, move onto the next one. If you address all of them at once, you may increase your stress levels and relapse. If you struggle with this process, try support groups or ask a friend for motivational help.

In conclusion, the relationship between stress and hair loss if very clear in some conditions. In other cases, it’s a biological suspicion. Whatever your situation, engaging in stress-reduction techniques can reduce the inflammatory processes and stress hormones that contribute to hair loss, giving you a stronger chance of seeing regrowth or slowing the process down.

Written by Robert B. Brown

Dermatologist. Researcher. Writer. There are only two things more important than my beard in life; My wife and my two kids. I'm a guy full of surprise. If you don't hear me talk about my hair or beard, it's probably because I am watching the UFC.