There is no doubt about it — stress negatively affects your hair. But did you know that stress can wreak havoc on your locks in multiple ways? In recognition of Stress Awareness Month, let’s discuss two major ways stress affects the appearance of your hair and what you can do to counteract those effects.

1. Stress Causes Hair Loss

The first way stress affects hair is by causing hair loss. Acute or short-term stressors can cause growing hairs to abruptly shift into the resting phase, which results in excess hair shedding about three months after the inciting event. This type of hair loss is called telogen effluvium. It generally presents as diffuse (or all over) thinning, but it is sometimes most noticeable around the temple area.

Physically stressful events, like childbirth, illness or surgery, can trigger this type of hair loss. In fact, many people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 reported hair loss several months after recovering from the illness. Similarly, a serious emotional stressor, like a divorce or losing a loved one, can trigger this type of hair loss. The good news is that telogen effluvium is generally temporary, and hair should slowly begin to regrow after the trigger is removed.

In a small set of people, particularly women, telogen effluvium can become long-lasting or chronic. It is not exactly clear why this happens, but hair continues to shed for longer than a few months. There is also new evidence that low levels of chronic stress can elevate stress hormone levels that, in turn, gradually shorten the hair growth phase and can ultimately turn off hair follicles. 

2. Stress Contributes to Hair Graying

Not only can stress cause you to lose hair, but studies show that stress might also be responsible for premature or early hair graying. 

Here’s how: stem cells located in the hair follicle are responsible for growing hair and producing hair pigment, or melanin, which give hair its natural color. Under stressful conditions, “fight or flight” hormones are released that cause the pigment-producing stem cells in hair follicles to overactivate and ultimately burn out. The good news here is that a recent study showed that gray hairs might regain their original color when the stress is relieved; however, this appears most likely to happen for newer gray hairs and when fewer gray hairs are present. 

How to Reverse or Improve Hair Loss or Gray Hairs Caused By Stress

One of the most important things you can do to help prevent or counteract the effects of stress on your hair is to prioritize your physical and mental health. This isn’t always easy, but it’s really important!

Maintaining a varied, healthy diet is also crucial to ensure the health of your hair. Eat enough protein by aiming for 40 - 60 grams per day. Also eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, selenium, iron, copper and antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E. While whole foods are always the best source of nutrients, supplements can be helpful when you can’t get enough from your diet. 

Also, try to engage in regular aerobic exercise and consider adding meditation practices to your routine. Both of these interventions may help reduce the levels of circulating stress hormones in your body and, in turn, might help restore your hair density or hair color. 

Finally, applying topical ingredients to your scalp that prolong the hair growth phase and stimulate pigment or melanin production might also be helpful to counteract hair loss or hair graying. 

Act Now to Counteract the Effects of Stress on Your Hair

It is crucial to act early for both stress-induced hair loss and hair graying, as the chances of reversal are most likely before either is too advanced. Don’t delay prioritizing your health and practicing stress-reducing measures. 

If you are experiencing sudden or unexplained changes in your hair, please seek care from a board-certified dermatologist

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About Dr. Neera Nathan

Neera Nathan, MD, MSHS is a Harvard-trained, board-certified dermatologist. While completing her residency in dermatology, she had the privilege of learning from international leaders in hair loss, aesthetics, laser medicine, and medical dermatology. She has authored more than 25 peer-reviewed publications, reviews, and book chapters to date and has presented her work at both national and international forums. 

She has received scholarships and scientific grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Advancing Innovation in Dermatology, the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. 

In addition to her academic presence, she has been frequently featured in the media for her expertise, including the New York Times, HuffPost, Forbes.com, ABC News, and the Harvard Health Blog. She is passionate about the science behind hair and skin health, medical blogging, and patient advocacy. 

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Disclaimer: Information in this article is intended for general informational and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended to constitute medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek professional medical advice from your physician.