Stress and Hair Loss: How Are They Related?

Stress and Hair Loss: How Are They Related?

You’ve heard it before.

“I’m so stressed….It's making me lose my hair!"

Turns out it’s more than just an expression.

Changing hormones and inflammation that result from stress can directly cause hair loss. Indeed, a study in mice found that mice exposed to high levels of stress hormones lost hair, while those whose stress hormones had been removed entirely retained their hair through old age.

If you’re concerned about hair loss, consider the influence of stress in your life. Here's how the process works and what to do about stress hair loss.

The Body's Complexity

The body is infinitely complex, and hair loss is often multifactorial, meaning it has a number of root causes. As a result, it can be difficult for those suffering from hair loss to determine the precise cause or combination of causes.

Many men simply assume that because their father, grandfather, or other relatives suffered from hair loss, they’re doomed to the same fate. There’s truth here, of course: hair loss is largely genetic, called androgenic alopecia or male/female pattern baldness. Androgenic alopecia is what most people with thinner hair are dealing with, and it’s caused by androgen hormones (like dihydrotestosterone) weakening their hair follicles.

Still, quality treatment can delay and even reverse the process of hair loss in most people.

Conversely, men and women who have no genetic predisposition to hair loss sometimes find themselves astonished when their hair begins thinning or receding at an early age.

Dermatologists recognize that many factors can result in hair loss over time. These are sometimes categorized by those that have inflammatory causes or non-inflammatory root causes, and those that are acquired or genetic. Some of the most well-understood risk factors are:

  • Aging
  • Genetics
  • UV exposure
  • Stress
  • Environmental toxins or factors
  • Bacterial or fungal infections
  • Tobacco and alcohol consumption
  • Extreme exercise
  • Poor nutrition

Because many of these factors do not directly cause hair loss but influence it by promoting the process of endocrinological or oxidative stress, the relationship between risk factors and hair loss can be foggy. A few instances of intense exercise or alcohol consumption, for example, are unlikely to cause you to lose your hair. But when these behaviors are chronic and regular, they may cause a frequent physiological stress response that inhibits the normal cell regeneration process necessary for hair growth.

To complicate matters further, scientists have recently begun to understand that genetic predispositions aren't as set in stone as once thought. Epigenetics, the process in which environmental influences can regulate and change the expression of certain genes, may also affect hair loss. A suite of factors from obesity to drug use may "switch" segments of DNA toward or away from thinning hair. Though a much greater understanding of epigenetics is necessary, these developments open new avenues to addressing the causes of hair loss in the future.

Inflammation and Oxidative Stress

Healthy hair follicles are constantly undergoing a process of growth and cell death. Under the best conditions, hair that falls out during cell death is promptly replaced by new hair growth.

But under other conditions, inflammation, the body's response to pathogens or other events, can significantly affect the regrowth process. When inflammation is relatively short-lived, it can promote healing. When it’s allowed to persist for extended periods, however, it can reduce the size and strength of hair follicles and create paths for cell death to occur.

Scientists do not currently understand exactly why the inflammatory process seems to target hair follicles. It’s clear, though, that the oxidative stress that’s characteristic of inflammation does result in greying and hair loss over time. It’s possible, therefore, that anti-inflammatory therapies can help to prevent hair loss, particularly in people dealing with inflammation due to autoimmune disorders.

Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

Cortisol is the primary hormone in the body that handles stress. Chronically elevated cortisol is a frequent culprit in stress hair loss.

In instances of acute stress, cortisol signals to the nervous system to prepare the fight or flight response so you can get yourself out of a potentially dangerous situation as quickly as possible. Like inflammation, hormonal stress is not intended as a solution to long-term stressors. Nevertheless, many facets of modern society elevate cortisol levels beyond what the body normally handles.

Recent research has identified mechanisms by which hair follicles create their own stress hormones when exposed to systemic stressors. The researchers responsible for the discovery have suggested that this may cause a kind of cycle in which hair follicles regulate themselves with decreasing efficiency until cell death becomes irreversible and frequent.

Dealing With Stress

For some, stress can be easy to recognize. For others, stress may have become so integrated in everyday life that it seems normal. Signs of chronic stress include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • High blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Digestive problems
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Immune problems

If you’re consistently overstressed, finding stress-reducing outlets is key. Along with seeking therapy, healthy lifestyle practices are great for reducing stress and stress hair loss, like:

  • Getting enough sleep at night
  • Engaging in healthy social and romantic relationships
  • Doing exercise regularly 
  • Eating a proper diet
  • Meditating, mindfulness, or yoga
  • Managing your workload
  • Going to a park or walking in nature

While reducing stress, you should also try to reduce behaviors that are likely to worsen the problem, like drinking, drug use, sleeping at odd times, or physical injuries.

If you’re concerned that your lifestyle doesn't lend itself to mitigating stress effectively, you may have to make some difficult choices. A job that’s extremely profitable but physically or mentally taxing, for example, may seem worthwhile in the short term, but the long-term effect on your body may not be worth the outcomes. Try not to view staying in an exploitative environment as "gritting your teeth" or "grinding it out." There are no “bonus points” for losing your hair and health years before everyone else. 

Preventing Hair Loss

Many factors contribute to hair loss, and it can be difficult to figure out if stress alone is responsible for your thinning scalp.

For most people, hair loss is preventable and treatable, even when genetics play a role.

Shapiro MD specializes in preventive and restorative treatments, like minoxidil and our patented, dermatologist-recommend natural formulations. These contain known plant extracts that have been shown to “block” the hormone DHT, or dihydrotestosterone at the molecular level, helping to fight hair loss at the scalp and follicle.

Our solutions can help you with shinier, healthier, and fuller-looking hair. Because they’re all-natural, they’re a fit for men and women of all hair types. Get started with our free quiz to find out which Shapiro MD kit is right for you.


Back to blog

Leave a comment