It’s True: Stress Causes Hair Loss and Thinning Hair, According to Science

Posted by Professor Anna Gray, Updated on December 24th, 2022
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The science is in and it says that it’s true: stress really does result in hair loss and thinning hair, specifically, chronic stress. The results were published in the esteemed journal, Nature, demonstrating that chronic stress inhibits hair growth. We’ve discussed chronic stress on our website before, and the dangers of it health-wise, and here is yet another reason why you need to get your stress levels under control.

Sustained Stress Prolongs “Resting Phase” of Hair Follicle Stem Cells

Chronic stress causes the release of the hormone corticosterone. This hormone then causes the “resting phase” of hair follicle stem cells (HSFCs) to last longer, slowing down or preventing hair turnover. One of the experiments on the rodent models included adrenalectomy (removal of one or both adrenal glands) which stopped the secretion of stress hormones, or corticosterone. Once the presence of these hormones was removed, the HSFCs resumed more frequent regeneration and hair turnover.

In this study, both adrenal glands were removed, entirely removing the source of corticosterone. Both experimental (adrenalectomy) and control mice were then shaved and their hair coats monitored over time period of several months.

The researchers also looked at the results of increasing corticosterone levels in mice. In one set of mice, they were given supplemented corticosterone via their drinking water and in the second set, the mice were exposed to stress triggers. These included tilting the cage and causing sudden light-dark changes. The hair cycle phases were determined visually and also confirmed histologically. The scientists also used a technique called florescence-activated cell sorting to actually identify the cells that the corticosterone was acting on and affecting HFSC activity.

Removing Stress Hormones Increased Number of Hair Cycles

In general, the researchers found that removing both adrenal glands activated the stem cells and enhanced their generation. Specifically, the adrenalectomy mice had an average of 10 synchronized hair cycles over the course of 16 months while the control mice only had three hair cycles in the same time frame, and their phases were synchronized. Over the course of the 16 months, the control mice experienced longer and longer telogen phases (resting phase; hair follicle does not grow) with random and asynchronized entry into the anagen phase (growing phase). The telogen phase lasted approximately two weeks in the adrenalectomy mice.

In the mice drinking the corticosterone-supplemented water, the hormone was found to severely inhibit hair growth. The corticosterone mice demonstrated a longer telogen phase when compared to the control mice. Once the corticosterone was removed, the mice entered anagen phase which suggests that the effects of stress on hair growth is actually reversible. Great news!

The mice that experienced external stressors but no corticosterone-supplemented water, the results were actually similar. Their telogen phases were also prolonged and the effect reversible by performing adrenalectomies.

How to Prevent Chronic Stress

Understand that chronic stress can cause serious health issues, not just hair loss. These health issues include mental issues, muscle aches, high blood pressure and constant illness due to a weakened immune system. Other issues include heart disease, depression and anxiety. All of this can become very serious for many adults and teenagers.

In order to prevent chronic stress from developing to the point of severe health problems, try to limit your tasks and obligations to what you can actually mentally and physically handle. If you find yourself being stressed out over all the stuff you have to do, it might be time to reevaluate these tasks and remove one or more of them from your daily to-do list. Ask for help or figure out what is non-essential.

Another big things is sleep. Sleep is so important and our bodies need it in order to recuperate and heal. Dealing with stress can lead to laying there worrying, not relaxing and not getting to sleep promptly. Try to allow ample time before your bedtime to decompress and truly relax. Do not veg out on the TV or phone – read a book, relax in the bath with music or meditate.

Harvard Medical School actually recommends something called “belly breathing.” The doctors say that it is a powerful tool in restoring your body after experiencing a stress response. Abdominal breathing regulates your heart rate, improves the levels of oxygen in the blood and releases tension in the body. Just sit or lay down and take a deep breath through your nose until your chest is full of air and your belly expands. Then exhale. Try doing this breathing technique for about 10-20 minutes a day.


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