This might sound familiar: A few months ago were mayhem. Maybe you had a big move, a job change, a diet change, or even an overhaul of your love life. You felt the stress, but you thought all that excitement was long gone. Now suddenly, you’re noticing your hair is shedding. Is it just you, or does it suddenly look like half of your strands have mysteriously vanished?
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You’re not crazy. When stressful events occur, it can trigger a stress response in your body, causing cycle-affecting substances like cortisol to run rampant. Cortisol, which is the stress hormone known to do a stellar job of interfering with our hair follicles’ function, causes hair to snap out of the growth phase and head right into the shedding phase — but this effect doesn’t become apparent immediately.
What causes stress-related hair loss?
To understand your hair’s delayed response to stress, it requires a breakdown of your hair follicle’s normal routine. Your hair growth cycle involves three phases, with your hair growth (or anagen) phase normally lasting 2 to 8 years and your resting (or telogen) phase lasting 2 to 3 months. At the end of your telogen phase, your hair naturally transitions into its shedding (or catagen) phase, which lasts another 4 to 6 weeks and makes way for a new round of growth. When significant stress occurs, your hair can be pushed into this “rest” phase early.
While typically 90-95% of our hair is enjoying its growth phase and only 5-10% of our hair is in its rest phase at a given time, stress can interfere with our hair follicles usual cycle, scaring more of them into their resting phase prematurely (and setting you up for bigger hair shedding than originally planned). Months later, when all of that resting phase hair transitions into the shedding phase, you’re left with the aftermath of that initial stress trigger — in other words, a house littered with hair.
This experience of generalized, non-scarring loss of hair from the scalp about three months after a triggering event is referred to as telogen effluvium (TE). While it feels alarming when it occurs, if your stress has come and gone, TE will usually run its course and resolve after about six months. Typically, your total hair loss amounts to less than 50% of your scalp hair.
How to reverse hair loss from stress
Reversing hair loss from stress relies on understanding where your stress is coming from, and perhaps even what you categorize as stress. It doesn’t just mean “I have a huge presentation tomorrow and I’m freaking out” (although emotional stress wreaking havoc on your hormones definitely counts). Our internal stress can be thought of as anything that stimulates a big metabolic change in the body, which in turn can bring more shedding. This influence can come from stress-hormone mayhem, but also a significant illness or undergoing surgery, crash dieting, weight changes, medication changes, and some nutritional deficiencies like overall malnutrition or zinc deficiency.
Keep in mind that your body can also perceive stress from changes to your environment, such as moving to a new home. This can come with new environmental exposure, like changes to your quality of water.
It’s important to decipher what is contributing to your hair loss, so talk to your doctor about your recent health history and undergo any recommended lab testing that can help to rule out hormonal, autoimmune, or nutritional disorders that may be behind it. When your hair loss is due to stress, identifying and removing your triggers is the real secret to resolving the problem. For some people, this may mean talking to their doctor about adjusting their current medications, devising new game plans for health management, or considering new practices to incorporate for stress support. Some solutions may involve dietary changes, supplementation, or supportive practices like therapy and counseling.
The best supplements for stress-related hair loss
While stress-related hair loss will usually only run its course for up to six months, adding stress support to your daily supplement regimen can be beneficial for longer-term support. This can be especially true if your stress isn’t likely to change anytime soon, such as the stress of a rewarding but demanding job or the stress of family changes. Some favorite stress support supplements include plants classified as adaptogens, which research shows contain active constituents that help support our “stress resistance.” Some all-stars include the herb ashwagandha, found in Nutrafol Core formulations, which studies show supports a significant decrease in anxiety markers and cortisol when taken daily. Rhodiola rosea, found in the Nutrafol Stress Adaptogen booster, has also been shown to support improvement in stress symptoms, boost energy metabolism, and help in preventing chronic stress.
Studies have shown that nutrient deficiencies can play a role in TE, so addressing any suspected or identified deficiencies can be important. Nutrients such as zinc, selenium, biotin, fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin E have been shown to support hair growth and may be beneficial to supplement, especially if overt deficiencies in nutrients such as zinc are identified by your doctor. (No surprise, you can find most of these ingredients in Nutrafol’s Core formulations.) As hair is primarily made up of the protein keratin, if a protein deficiency is suspected, supplementing with protein powder may also be beneficial.
Interestingly enough, research on stress-related hair loss has found that sufferers show a notable decrease in their antioxidant activity, which is important for combating the oxidative stress of our everyday environment (which can damage our hair or stress our growth cycle). Research shows that previously stress-stalled hair growth cycles were restored when an antioxidant was brought into the picture, leading researchers to believe that antioxidants can be an important tool for sufferers of stress-induced hair loss. Some powerful antioxidants to consider include vitamin C, resveratrol, and astaxanthin.
Utilizing a nutraceutical supplement that combines different supportive ingredients together may be a more beneficial approach than using one or two supplements alone. As shown in a six-month study monitoring the effectiveness of Nutrafol’s Women Core, the synergistic approach of taking a multi-targeted complex with combined anti-inflammatory, stress-adaptogenic, and antioxidant properties brought significant improvement to hair growth and quality of hair of the women studied. As reported in the study, “a significant percentage of subjects receiving active treatment also reported improvement in hair growth, volume, thickness, and hair growth rate, as well as decreased anxiety and other wellness parameters.”
When dealing with stress-related hair loss, understanding your hair growth cycle is the most important piece of the puzzle. Hair shedding takes three to six months to cease, after which regrowth can be noted three to six months on removal of the trigger. (But it’s worth noting that cosmetically-significant regrowth can take 12 to 18 months.) With patience, a little detective work, and the right changes, you can be back on the road to optimal hair growth in no time.