Stress and Hair Loss: Understanding the Physiology

Have you ever wondered where the term “pulling my hair out” came from?  You can already guess by the title of this post that stress can be a significant cause of hair loss for men and women.  And what is unfortunate is that while going through a period of prolonged stress, seeing your hair fall out in the brush or during your shower can, of course, leave you feeling more stressed.  And the cycle continues until stress levels are returned to normal.

But in our busy lives, that’s easier said than done isn’t it?  You may operate a business or have a challenging career, or maybe you are going through a difficulty with a relationship, such as a divorce.  There are many reasons why people can find themselves suffering apparent hair loss as a result of chronic stress; but you can do something about it.

Telogen Effluvium: A Diagnosis of Hair Loss Due to Stress

Hair cycling, or the speed with which hair transitions between the three stages of development, growth and loss is still a bit of a mystery to clinicians and researchers, particularly since the length of the stages can differ depending on the individual.   When they finally do figure it out, we will be closer to finding a preventative measure for hair loss.

Human hair growth is categorized in these three cyclical stages of development:

1. Anagen

This is the new growth phase of the hair follicle, which can last from three to five years on average.  During this stage the hair follicle enlarges and grows deeper into the scalp and formulates roots.  When the hair follicle reaches an ideal depth (where it can access nutrients much like a plant in soil) a hair bulb is formed at the bottom (like a seed) connected by dermal papillae.  This nourishes the follicle and stabilizes the shaft of the hair.

Once the root or bulb is formed, the follicle then begins to grow upward from the scalp. If there is an older hair in that path, it is pushed out of the way and falls out.   It is important to note that at any time, if the hair follicle fails to create a strong dermal papillae connection, the hair shaft will cease development and (if it has penetrated the scalp and visible) it will fall out as it is pushed upward and unsecured from the root.

2. Catagen

During the second phase of hair growth and development, follicles have aged 3-5 years and start preparing for the ‘resting stage’ in their development.  This phase lasts about two weeks, where the bulb area (or root) of the follicle begins to collapse.

During this phase, an unknown biological signal stops the anagen phase and abruptly halts the growth of the hair follicle.  The portion of the root that is attached to the scalp (dermal papillae) detaches from the blood supply and nutrients and starts to move upward, as the bulb structure shrinks.  The dermal papilla does not move with the hair shaft, but rather remains in position for the next new hair that will grow in that location, during the anagen process.

Some medications such as Rogaine are used to delay the onset of the catagen phase and lengthen the anagen phase, to help prevent hair loss and retain strong and healthy hair at the root.

3. Telogen

This is the final stage of the hair growth cycle, where follicles are now resting and prone to shedding.  This phase lasts approximately 4 months, and the shedding or hair loss that occurs makes room for the growth of new hair within the follicle, below the surface of the scalp.

During this last stage, the hair no longer grows, and it transforms into keratin, which also helps nourish the scalp and make the area more conducive to growing new hair. Many clinicians refer to hair follicles as being “club shaped” during this phase.

Completely detached from the nutrient supply, the follicle is now essentially dead, and will move closer to the surface of the scalp.  Hairs that are in the telogen stage fall out easy during grooming (brushing or shampooing).   As much as 20% of the average person’s hair is in the telogen stage, and the cycle repeats perpetually, assuming there are no underlying health issues or damage to the scalp.

Clinicians understand that a stressful event, or ongoing chronic stress levels dial up the hair maturation process, although they aren’t, as we mentioned, quite sure how that works.  What they do know is that hair loss from stress is not immediate and can occur up to three months after a physical trauma or significantly stressful event.  Stress also changes the percentage of hairs that are active in the growth stage and shifts them to maturation and the telogen stage much faster, causing hair thinning and loss.

Hair loss due to Telogen Effluvium is often not permanent.  The temporary hair loss is for most individuals, resolved within six months after the stress inducing event.  Where it does become a long-term concern is for individuals who may be experience enduring or chronically high stress levels.  Over time, this can result in a significant impairment to the anagen stage and impair the body’s mechanisms to create new and healthy hair follicles.

Natural Hair Loss or Cause for Concern? Talk to Your Doctor First

The average human loses between 50 to 100 hairs every day, as part of the phasic growth and regeneration process. If you start to notice more strands of your hair coming out when you brush, comb or wash your hair, or if you can feel a noticeable reduction in hair volume or thickness, the first step is to talk to your primary care provider.

Women can experience hair loss immediately following childbirth, when there is a dramatic hormonal shift that significantly decreases estrogen levels.  That quick change shocks the hair follicles and they can stop growing for a period of up to five months after childbirth; this is called Postpartum Alopecia.  This condition however naturally reverses itself, and women can expect their hair to return to normal growth patterns and pre-pregnancy hair density after one year.

Your personal physician may want to run some tests to rule out other causes of hair loss, including hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies (such as low iron) or autoimmune diseases.  If your physician has determined that there are no health considerations that may be contributing to hair loss, he or she may refer you to a dermatologist to check the condition of your scalp.   Finally, if all medical checks are clear, you may wish to explore hair restoration treatments to help minimize the visual appearance of hair loss.

 Why Does Stress Cause Hair Loss?

There are many chemical changes that occur in the body, when it is under duress.  You have probably heard of the “fight or flight” mode that our bodies shift into, when it feels threatened.   That emotional response sets off a chain reaction where the body begins to evaluate the areas where it can conserve energy to defend itself.

Part of this natural defense mechanism includes diverting functions that are non-essential, and individuals who are experiencing significant stress first begin to see signs in the form of slower nail growth (or brittle, easy to break nails), dry hair and hair loss.

Dietary and lifestyle changes are an important part of restoring the natural cycles of hair growth.  While many individuals explore hair growth supplements like biotin, a new report by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 warned against exceeding 35 micrograms daily.   The benefits of biotin can also be nutritionally derived from some foods like bananas, dairy products and eggs and hydration every day is also essential to healthy skin and scalp conditions that support hair growth.

Chronic insomnia can also have an impact on hair loss.  In our hectic schedules, we sometimes forget how important adequate amounts of sleep are to our health, until we start to see the visual signs.  With regard to hair loss, prolonged sleep deprivation compromises the immune system, and can elevate cortisol (stress hormone) levels that can contribute to hair loss.

 

Remember to talk to your physician about your concerns regarding abnormal hair loss first, and then schedule an appointment with our team at Natural Restorations Hair Center, to explore minimally invasive procedures that can help “fill in” sparse areas and stimulate healthy hair regrowth.

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