Scientists, researchers, and doctors have known for quite some time that chronic stress can lead to hair shedding and loss. Now, researchers from Harvard University have made a key discovery about the biological mechanics that connect stress and hair loss.
Recently published in the journal Nature, the study found that a major stress hormone in mice puts their hair follicle stem cells into an extended resting phase without regenerating the follicle or the hair. Hair follicle stem cells are what fuel that natural cycle between rest and growth. During the hair growth phase, hair follicle stem cells become activated to regenerate the follicle and hair, and hairs grow longer every day. These stem cells are dormant during the resting phase, causing hairs to shed more easily and frequently. That shedding becomes hair loss when the stem cells remain dormant without regenerating new tissue.
The Harvard researchers identified the specific cell type and molecule responsible for relaying the stress signal to the stem cells. They found that the overproduction of certain hormones triggered by stress had a negative effect on hair follicles and their growth cycle.
Corticosterone is a primary stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands in mice. The human equivalent of corticosterone is cortisol, often called the “stress hormone.” The researchers found that giving mice corticosterone reproduced the stress effect on the stem cells, suggesting that elevated stress hormones indeed negatively affect hair follicle stem cells.
Normally, time and aging slow down hair follicle regeneration over time, and the resting phase lasts longer. But when the researchers took the stress hormones out of the equation, the stem cells’ resting phase in the subject mice became significantly shorter. Their hair follicles constantly entered the growth phase and regenerated hair follicles throughout their life, even when they were much older.
The study confirms that reducing stress, thereby reducing the amount of cortisol we produce, can have a positive effect on hair loss. That is because stress keeps follicle stem cells from entering the growth phase and regenerating new hair follicles.
Of course, hair loss isn’t the only negative effect that too much stress has on our bodies. It can cause a whole host of health problems and diminish the quality of life. That is why self-care, including effective stress management, is so critical to our physical and mental health. Make sure that you identify a stress-reducing outlet that works for you, whether it is hanging out with friends, being alone with a book, walking your dog, or doing nothing at all.
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