Stress can make us want to pull our hair out, but it’s also given as a common reason for accelerated hair loss or hair thinning, both in men and in women. A friend of mine who is earning her PhD recently complained of losing handfuls of hair in the shower, and attributed it to the stress of earning a doctorate. But is there any evidence to back this up? Does stress really cause us to lose our hair at a faster rate than we normally would?
The Straight Talk
Although there are few large studies on the topic, the consensus, supported by animal models and human research, is that stressful events can trigger temporary hair loss.
In both mice and men, molecules from the systemic stress response also mediate hair follicle cycling. A 2003 study demonstrated that emotional stress altered hair follicle cycling in mice, and prematurely terminated the normal duration of active hair growth.
A few human studies have supported this conclusion, finding that the two types of temporary hair loss—telogen effluvium and alopecia areata—are often preceded by stressful emotional or physical events.
Telogen effluvium is the most common type of stress-induced hair loss. This type of loss is typically preceded by a physical stress, such as a surgery, illness, pregnancy, malnutrition, or a psychological stress. Around the time of the event, large numbers of hairs stop growing and move into the resting phase, known as the telogen phase. After about three months, these resting hairs start to fall out; this is when we notice the “handfuls” of hair lost in the shower. (Normal hair loss is about one hundred hairs a day.) Luckily, the hair will eventually grow back (if the underlying cause has been resolved) in six to nine months.
Alopecia areata has a different mechanism of hair loss, but can be also triggered by stressful events. In areata, the immune system attacks the hair follicle, causing it to stop growing; this results in patches of localized hair loss. Usually the hair grows back within six to twelve months; sometimes this patch of hair will be a slightly different color.
Stress won’t cause you to go bald, but it might leave you with a hair-coated pillow sometime in the near future.
Say What? is a series created to support or debunk common health myths. If you have a question for Brie, please send it to her in care of the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.