Some stressors are so huge and so in-your-face that you can’t help but notice them. The stress of a deadline at work, for example, is obvious and easy to pinpoint. These noticeable stressors swoop in and rev up the stress hormone cortisol, which then dwindles as our lives go back to normal. But what if your worklife turns toxic and daily cortisol spikes become your new normal? That’s when a steady undercurrent of chronic (or long-term) stress can throw off the hair growth cycle and lead to hair shedding and thinning.
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How hidden stress stacks up and becomes chronic
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic is easily filed in the category of “big stressful event.” Right away, we felt sudden unease, confusion, and even fear. This is a perfect example of acute (or short-term) stress. When faced with acute stressors, our body responds by releasing higher levels of our stress hormones, which are then expected to decrease when the stressor is gone.
But in this case, the shock of our original stressor didn’t go away — it lingered and gave way to a new list of demands on our everyday lives. Under the chronic stress of this year, our internal stress dials don’t get a break. Other common causes of chronic stress include:
- Toxic relationships
- Financial difficulties
- Uncertainty about the future
- Sleep deprivation
- Constantly being on-the-go
When chronic stress clings to the periphery of our everyday life, it becomes harder for us to spot. However, internally it’s wreaking havoc: That stream of cortisol, usually released in bursts before returning to normal levels, can be stimulated so frequently that it may damage the internal system you have to keep its levels in check. This damage allows your “baseline” level of cortisol to climb higher than it should.
Chronic stress and hair thinning
Unfortunately, the effects of chronic stress can stick around even after a stressor is gone. Your cortisol levels can stay heightened, continuing to affect your body and hair. Within a few months of experiencing stress, whether acute or chronic, hair follicles can be thrown out of the growth phase and into the resting phase. This is when you may see more loose hairs in your brush and on your floors and clothes.
With chronic stress, shedding can go on for a longer period of time, as well as cause long-term disruption in hair growth. Not to mention the secondary impacts stress has on hair, such as increasing the inflammatory response in the hair follicle environment, diverting hair-building nutrients away from the follicle, and breaking down important structural skin components like collagen. It’s not hard to imagine how this continual impact can quickly make a difference in our hair thickness and health.
Managing stress to get your hair back on track
Modern research indicates we can make a big impact on cortisol levels and how our body responds to stress — even if our stressors are chronic. Studies have shown that simply exercising throughout the week can help reduce cortisol levels. Mindfulness practices like yoga have been associated with better regulation of the sympathetic (or stress-responding) nervous system. Meditation has also been shown to help lower blood pressure, cortisol, and other markers of stress.
Targeted supplements are another effective way to help support a healthy stress response. Adaptogenic herbs have been shown to help increase our ability to adapt to and improve resilience to stress (aka increase stress stamina). Particularly for chronic stress, adaptogens help strengthen our internal systems commonly compromised by stress. The adaptogen ashwagandha, found in Nutrafol, has been shown to lower cortisol levels, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep quality.
To address the secondary damage chronic stress can bring on, supplementing with ingredients like vitamin D and vitamin E can help support healthy immune signaling that has been thrown off by chronic stress. Curcumin, meanwhile, has been shown to aid in a healthy inflammatory response.
Dealing with chronic stress is no picnic! Sometimes half the battle is realizing the sneaky impact it’s having on you and your hair. Thankfully, healthy lifestyle choices like regular exercise, mindfulness practices, and stress-supportive supplements have been shown to help.