Stress-Induced Hair Loss: Symptoms and Treatments

man grabbing his hair and yelling angerly on a red background

People can experience hair loss for a variety of different reasons. Thinning hair can be attributed to genetics, diet, disease, and even stress. Since stress is such a common element in our lives, it’s no wonder that hair loss from stress is a growing concern.

Stress Hormones and Hair Loss

Stress can cause hair loss by causing the body to produce higher levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a “stress hormone” released from the adrenal glands in response to physical or emotional stress and has many different effects on the body. One of the undesirable affects of this stress hormone is a negative impact on hair health. In addition, when cortisol levels are high, it can lead to inflammation of the scalp, which can also contribute to hair loss. Ultimately, the stress related hair thinning can lead to temporary hair loss in the form of telogen effluvium or more permanent thinning in the form of alopecia areata.

Stress Interrupts the Natural Hair Growth Cycle

When our bodies are healthy and under normal levels of stress, our hair grows in a natural cycle. During this normal hair cycle, each follicle produces a new hair, which grows for years and then eventually falls out.

 

The first phase is called the anagen phase. This is the growth phase, when the hair is growing longer – and it lasts for two to six years. After the hair falls out, it enters the second phase of growth called the catagen phase. This is a transitional stage and it only lasts for two to three weeks. The last stage in the hair growth cycle is called the telogen phase. This is the “resting phase,” when the hair rests as a tiny vellus hair before it re-enters the growing phase.

 

Under normal, healthy conditions, the Telogen phase can last for up to four months. However, when the body is experiencing a stressful event the hair follicle can enter an extended resting phase, which prevents hair regrowth and leads to thinning scalp hair.

Stress and Telogen Effluvium

woman with long brown hair looking upset at her hair brush full of hair

When stress causes hair loss, it is often diagnosed as a condition called telogen effluvium. This is a temporary form of hair loss that occurs when the body experiences a traumatic event, such as childbirth, surgery, a high fever, or severe illness. However, this hair loss doesn’t just occur from physical stress – it can also occur when people experience stress from profound negative emotions, such as a breakup of the loss of a loved one.

 

When the body is under stress, it pushes more hairs into the telogen phase, which is commonly known as the “resting phase.” In this phase, the hair follicle does not grow new hair.

 

Fortunately, telogen effluvium hair loss is usually only temporary and the hair will typically grow back once the stressful event has passed. However, in some cases, telogen effluvium can lead to chronic hair loss if the individual continues to experience high levels of stress.

Impact of Stress on Hair Follicles

The hair follicles on our scalp follow a hair growth cycle that consists of three phases: growth, rest, and shedding. The growth phase (anagen) is when the follicle produces new hair. The resting phase (telogen) is when the follicle remains inactive for a period of time. And the shedding phase (catagen) is when the follicle dies and the hair falls out.

 

When we’re stressed, it can cause the hair follicle to go into the resting phase sooner than they should. This can lead to thinning hair and eventually hair loss. Stress can also cause the follicles to produce weaker hairs that are more likely to fall out.

Alopecia Areata

One of the more serious stress-related hair loss conditions is called alopecia areata. This is an autoimmune disorder that can cause patchy hair loss all over the scalp or even complete baldness. Alopecia areata is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including stress.

While there is no cure for alopecia areata, there are some treatments that can help regrow hair or camouflage the hair loss. These include corticosteroid injections, topical immunotherapy, and light therapy.

Impact of Stress on Hair Follicle Stem Cells

Each hair follicle on our scalp depends on special stem cells called hair follicle stem cells (HFSC) to promote hair growth. Recent research by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) has shown that stress can directly impact the sustained production of these important cells. The findings by Harvard researchers were supported by a 2021 study published in Nature that showed stress hormones caused the hair follicles on mice to enter a prolonged resting phase.

 

The researchers at Harvard determined that chronic stress impacts how often hair follicle stem cells are able to regenerate. When the hair follicle stem cells fail to properly regenerate, the body lacks the critical tools needed to regenerate hair follicles which are responsible for promoting hair growth. Essentially, this study identifies the biological mechanism by which chronic stress leads to hair loss. Specifically, researchers found that chronic stress prevented dermal papilla cells from secreting Gas6, a molecule that is responsible for activating stem cells in the hair follicle.

Non-Stress-Related Causes of Hair Loss

While we’ve been discussing types of hair loss related to stress, it’s important to note that there are a number of non-stress-related causes of hair loss – including androgeneic alopecia, traction alopecia, and chemo induced alopecia.

Androgenic alopecia

Androgenic alopecia (also known as androgenetic alopecia) is the most common type of hair loss and is caused by a combination of genetic and hormonal factors. In this condition, the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT) has been shown to be responsible for causing hair follicles to shrink and eventually stop producing hair.

Traction Alopecia

Traction alopecia is a type of hair loss that is caused by chronic hair pulling, typically from hairstyles that put stress on the hair follicles. Excessive hair pulling from tight hairstyles like braids or ponytails can lead to hair loss in both men and women.

Chemotherapy Induced Alopecia

Chemo induced alopecia is a type of hair loss that is caused by chemotherapy drugs. These drugs can damage the hair follicles and cause them to stop producing hair. Chemotherapy induced alopecia management involves developing strategies to promote hair growth without discontinuing the life-saving cancer treatments.

Hair Loss from Nutrient Deficiency

smiling woman eating salad out of a white bowl

A lack of sufficient protein and essential vitamins and nutrients can lead to hair loss. A lack of proper nutrition can affect the entire body. Nutrient deficiencies can even affect hair follicle regeneration and, in extreme cases, lead to diffuse thinning across the entire scalp.

 

Some of the most important nutrients for a healthy diet include protein, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and vitamin E. A lack of any of these nutrients can negatively affect hair health. Protein is essential for healthy hair, while iron is necessary for delivering oxygen to the scalp. Vitamin B12 helps keep the hair follicles healthy, while vitamin A and vitamin E are both important antioxidants that help protect the scalp from free radicals. This guide explains which vitamins are essential for healthy hair.

 

Crash dieting can lead to nutritional deficiencies that can cause hair loss. When you’re on a crash diet, you’re likely not getting the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. This is why a balanced diet is essential for preventing stress related hair loss.

Treatment for Stress-Induced Hair Loss

If you are experiencing hair loss due to stress, there are a few different treatment options available:

Stress Management

One of the best ways to treat stress-induced hair loss is by managing stress levels. There are a variety of different methods to relieve stress, including yoga, meditation, and even aromatherapy. If you’re not sure how to reduce stress in your life, consider speaking with a therapist or counselor who can provide practical advice to help you develop a plan to manage your stress.

Get Plenty of Rest

Getting enough sleep is important for overall health, but it’s also crucial for healthy hair. When we’re tired, our bodies produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This can lead to inflammation and damage to the follicles, which can impact hair growth. Most people need at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night to help minimize stress levels and promote hair health.

Topical Treatments

There are a number of topical medications that can be used to treat hair loss, including minoxidil and finasteride. Minoxidil is a vasodilator that helps to improve blood flow to the scalp and is available over-the-counter for men and women. Minoxidil has been clinically shown to increase hair growth in some patients, but it does have some potential nasty side effects.

Other Treatment Options

There are a variety of hair loss options for treating stress-induced hair loss, including PRP injections, steroid injections, laser therapy, and hair transplant surgery. Each of these options has been shown to be an effective hair loss treatment in clinical studies – but the results will vary based on a number of factors, including the skill of the medical provider and the overall health of the patient.

Learn More About Treating Hair Loss

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