Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is involved in many vital processes in the body, like our metabolism and immune function, for example. When it comes to stress, cortisol plays a key role in our body’s “fight or flight” response by triggering the sympathetic nervous system to respond when we feel stressed or threatened.
Chronic stress, the kind many of us experienced in 2020, for example, results in high cortisol levels over periods of months, even years. Neurologists report that this is a relatively new development in human history.
If you’ve been under an overwhelming amount of stress and have experienced hair loss, increased cortisol levels could be to blame. Here, we dive into the complex ways the hormone can impact our bodies and our lives, plus how we can manage and reduce our overall stress levels and combat the negative impacts cortisol can have on our luscious locks.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is most commonly known as the “stress hormone.” Once our body signals any signs of stress, cortisol is what we get as a response. However, it’s not all bad. Cortisol helps the body transform fat and sugars into energy and it can help the body respond to stress more efficiently when it’s not over-produced.
How Does Cortisol Affect the Body?
Cortisol can affect the body in a number of ways. Some people experience more than one symptom of higher cortisol levels and most symptoms depend on what’s causing a higher production of cortisol throughout the body.
The main trigger that causes our bodies to release cortisol is stress, aka the flight or fight response. In this context, cortisol’s primary purpose is to prepare the body for a conflict so that we can respond quickly in crisis. Our ancestors relied on the effects of cortisol to get to their feet and run for the hills when faced with a saber-tooth cat, for instance.
Cortisol is still valuable in equivalent modern-day situations: being alert and responsive in a fire or other emergency, swerving to miss a pedestrian and so on. But constant elevated stress hormone levels are toxic to our bodies.
When the body has to contend with extra cortisol over the long-term you might start to notice symptoms like weight gain, impaired mental function, irritability, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, acne, and, yes, hair loss.
How Does Cortisol Affect Hair?
Stress is a common reason that women lose their hair, and cortisol can contribute to stress induced hair loss in a number of ways . “Cortisol can impact hair growth both directly and indirectly,” shared Dr. Erum Ilyas, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Amber Noon.
To break it down, cortisol might impact your hair growth cycle by:
- Directly impacting the hair follicles
- Impacting the production of other hormones needed for hair growth
- Its involvement in certain illnesses that can cause hair loss
Studies show that cortisol is directly connected to the function of the hair follicle. “Increased cortisol levels can cause a reduction in the production of some key modulators of the hair cycle, called hyaluronans and proteoglycans,” explained Dr. Ilyas. These modulators play an important role in the healthy functioning of our hair follicles.
“Indirectly, increased production of cortisol by the adrenal glands can impair the production of other hormones that are needed for the hair cycle and hair growth phase,” explained Dr. Ilyas.
Without these hair-friendly hormones, your tresses take a hit. As a result, the hair can become weaker and might eventually be shed. In some cases, the hair fall is a lot more visible and extreme than others and boosting your hair wellness becomes an immediate concern!
How Can I Tell If It’s Cortisol Hair Loss?
Both stress and hair loss are complex. At any given moment life stress might be impacting your hair’s health, but there are likely other stressors acting on your follicular function too: environmental factors, the hair products you use, medications you take and your diet, to name just a few. Hair health is a multifaceted concern.
Most often when people think of stress-related hair loss they think of telogen effluvium (or TE), a form of hair loss that is most often tied to a specific and very impactful experience that hits the body hard: severe illness, a death in the family, or a new birth control, for example. Cortisol plays a role here, “elevated cortisol levels disrupt the hair cycle and accelerate the resting phase, causing telogen effluvium,” shared Dr. Ilyas.
But that’s not the only way cortisol can cause hair shedding. “If elevated cortisol levels impair the production of sex hormones by the adrenal glands, the result can be androgenetic alopecia,” added Dr. Ilyas. Androgenetic alopecia is a hormone-driven form of hair loss that is also commonly known as male or female pattern hair loss.
“And, lastly, with cortisol’s effect on the immune system, the potential for alopecia areata is also possible,” explained Dr. Ilyas. Alopecia areata is a patchy form of hair loss that is associated with autoimmune dysfunction and might also be caused by other autoimmune diseases like lupus.
Since sustained high cortisol levels can impact your hair growth and your overall health in several ways, it's important to consult with a doctor so they can properly diagnose and treat you. “An evaluation and diagnosis by your dermatologist of the pattern and type of hair loss is important to direct therapy more effectively,” advised Dr. Ilyas.
How Can I Reduce Stress Levels?
Severe stress can have some unpleasant compounding effects on the body. “I routinely counsel patients, the stress of hair loss leads to more hair loss,” shared Dr. Ilyas.
So if you’re experiencing hair loss related to stress, take a deep breath and know that there are many ways for you to tackle stress and mitigate the impacts cortisol is having on your hair health. The really good news is that reducing stress will have whole-body and mind benefits beyond just your follicles!
One thing you might consider trying is our GRO+ Advanced Gummies, which boast the soothing benefits of full-spectrum CBD (shown to reduce cortisol levels in the body) along with hair-loving vitamins like biotin, zinc and others to help restore hair impacted by high stress levels.
Other things that are proven to reduce stress include laughter, exercise, practicing mindfulness, meditation, and getting at least eight hours of sleep each night.
Thanks to the global pandemic are all having a love-hate relationship with cortisol right now. Chronic stress can impact your hair health and wellness in a variety of ways, but the good news is that by actively managing stress and engaging in a little extra TLC for your locks you can restore fuller, thicker and healthier looking hair.
Additional members of Team VEGAMOUR contributed to the reporting for this article.
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